Burmese names are often very confusing to foreign visitors because we do not necessarily hand down family surnames from generation to generation and Burmese wives seldom use the names of their husbands. Thus U Sein Tun’s son might be Maung Saw Tin, and his wife might be called Daw Mya Aye.
The titles prefixed to a name are also a bit difficult at first. A boy will be called “Maung” (“young brother”) till he is about twenty, and a girl “Ma.” But Maung and Ma are also common personal names, as with the well-known writers Dr. Mauing Mauing and Ma Ma Lay. An older man will address a much younger one as “Maung,” while a landowner or a businessman would address a tenant farmer or laborer as “Maung.” A little further up the age and status scale comes “Ko” (“elder brother”), and, finally, “U,” the form for a man who has made his mark in life. Yet, no matter how successful, he would always be too modest to sign himself as “U,” and if his personal name is a single word he will prefix it with “Mauing.” For a married or an older woman the title is “Daw,” but in conversation this is often dropped and affection or respect is indicated by doubling one of the syllables of her name. Then there is “Bo” for an army officer or someone who distinguished himself in our struggle for independence.
One or more of a Burmese child’s names is almost certain to show the day on which he was born—a survival from our belief that human destiny is linked with the stars. Certain letters of the alphabet are ascribed to each day, so that a “Thursday’s child” would have one name beginning with our P, B, or M.
Burmese is a monosyllabic language, and each part of our names is an actual word that means something, or even several things, depending on how it is pronounced. Thus I am “Little Mother” (Mi Mi) “Branch of the Tree” (Khaing) (though “khaing” can also mean “firm”), and our Prime Minister, U Nu, is “Mr. Tender.” Naturally enough, parents try to select for their children names denoting desirable qualities, beautiful things in nature or some form of worldly success. A merchant I know was aptly named “Surmounting a Hundred Thousand,” while the Rector of Rangoon University, Dr. Htin Aung, is “Distinguished and Successful.”
Being so handsomely named is not embarrassing, however, because we become so used to our names, and those of our friends, that we only think of the person and remember their names by their sound. And then too, a great many people have exactly the same names—as with U Mya Sein, the writer-diplomat, and Daw Mya Sein, the historian. And a few Burmese who were educated in British-type schools also have an English name which they still sometimes use among close friends.
“What’s in a name?” the saying goes, and perhaps Burmese feel this more than other peoples, for, if one of us in dogged by bad luck or ill health he won’t hesitate to choose a new one, simply putting an announcement in the paper that he has done so.