The story behind my Vietnamese name, Thảo

You’ve seen my Vietnamese name, Thảo, all over this site but I’ve never explained how I came to have a Vietnamese name and why it’s Thảo.

Thảo in Tây Ninh

The problem of what to call myself always occurs outside of English-speaking countries. Nowadays I use my middle name, Elisabeth, outside of the UK because it’s a lot more familiar and easier to pronounce than my first name, Ruth. When embarking on my Asian adventure, it slipped my mind that I’d had difficulties with my name in the past so I started teaching with the name Ruth. Cue the problems. The ‘th’ sound (phoneme θ) doesn’t appear in many languages. This error alone is not a big deal but the initial ‘r’ can be tricky too. From Vietnam to Italy I’ve had people struggle with that sound and have even been asked if my name starts with ‘br’!?

A lot of my students in Vietnam simply addressed me as ‘Teacher’ as opposed to my title, Ms Ruth. While this form of address is a common and respectful thing to do in Vietnam, I do wonder if I had a higher occurrence of this due to the difficulty of pronouncing my name.

So my students found a way around the problem, but there was still the issue of interactions outside of work.


When speaking English with people, my name was sometimes a difficulty, often not. However, when speaking Vietnamese my name was just too strange. It Vietnamized as ‘Ru’. I’ve known a Ru and a Rew before but mostly the name reminds me of Roo from Winnie the Pooh.

Even for myself, when I switch to English pronunciation mid-sentence to say my name, this affects my subsequent Vietnamese pronunciation (I slip into a stronger English accent).

The simple and obvious solution was to choose a Vietnamese name.

I expressed this desire to some of my friends and randomly one friend had a list of his classmates’ names on him that day. Together they went through the list and one of them read out female names that they liked. If they all agreed that it was a nice name, it was then my turn to repeat it. Some names I couldn’t pronounce well, other fared a little better – with two friends thinking my pronunciation was up to par but the other one thinking I was a little off. Finally we got to Thảo. I repeated it successfully to a unanimous opinion not once but three times in a row.

At this point we got into the meaning. As the pool of Vietnamese names is relatively small, most people know the meaning of common names. Thảo has two meanings – the first one I heard is along the lines of ‘herbal’. The second is about respecting your parents or ‘honour’.

Thảo means herbal.

Thảo means herbal.

So there I had it – my Vietnamese name. Thảo.

Over to you: Do you have any problems with your name when abroad or when speaking a foreign language? Have you ever used, or would you consider using, another name?

Photo credit: degrassi and gabriel77

{ Leave a Reply ? }

  1. 彦::Charles

    Haha, /th/ sound can be tricky for us Asian (I’m Chinese) e.g. “Thank you” may sound like “sank you”;-)
    /r/ sound isn’t hard for me, esp. after I switched to American English. But for a long time I couldn’t distinguish /l/ and /n/. Every now and then I still have trouble with “slow/snow” or “collection/connection”;-)

    Did you Vietnamese students confuse /l/ and /n/?

  2. DHN

    Look up “Cô giáo Thảo”.

    • Marc

      I was laughing like a maniac on reading your comment. hahahhahahhahahaha

  3. Stephanie

    I think it’s a great idea to take on a Vietnamese name, and I love how you chose it. The “th” sound really is hard for lots of speakers – including French and Spanish speakers.

    (Also, I *love* the name Ruth.)

  4. Dyanne@TravelnLass

    Most interesting my dear (or… should I say “Your Honorable Basil”?) 😉 I’ve often wondered how your Vietnamese nickname came to be.

    Me? I’ve finally flown the (Asian) coop completely. Spent a glorious week in Dalat before… I’m now settled into the opposite side of (and down) the globe: 8 *THOUSAND* feet up in the Andes mountains in Ecuador!

    So far, utterly amazing – and the complete OPPOSITE of all things Asian!

    When (not “if”) do you return to Vietnam?

  5. NZ Muse

    Great story!

    Our of curiosity, is a one syllable name really that much tougher than a four syllable one (esp. given they both end in “th”?)

  6. Thanh Nguyen

    Thảo in vietnamese has two meanings and it can be a suffix or prefix in some words. It either “herbal” or “good hearted” depending on the context. You have words like “thảo ăn”, “thảo mộc”, “hiếu thảo” etc…

  7. Thuy

    Hi Ruth, nice to read the origin of your Vietnamese name. Your students cannot pronounce your English name ending with ‘th’ so you chose a Vietnamese name with the ‘th’ at the beginning!
    My name also starts with “th”– Thùy, which is difficult to pronounce for non-Vietnamese. Japanese and Chinese would call me Sui, French would call me Tui (or Tu–you?!). I used to ask people call me Three. Yes I am number Three!

  8. Mike Shaffer

    How is your name in Vietnamese pronounced. I knew a young woman many decades ago, whose name sounded like Tea, but I have no idea how to spell it in Vietnamese or what it’s meaning is.

  9. Tim Trevan

    I am lucky to go by Tim, which translates into most languages. It does sometimes end up as Team, or Tiyeem (Russians and Brazilians), but both are close enough. I joke with Muslim friends that I should go by Abdullah as that is a reasonable translation into Arabic from the Greek Timo Theos.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

CommentLuv badge