Say My (Sur)Name

Genealogist Kevin Nguyen discusses the history of his last name, and the benefits and challenges that come with it.

There’s a good chance you know someone with the last name Nguyen. In fact, there’s a pretty good chance you know at least two people with the last name Nguyen. There’s an even better chance that these two Nguyens have been asked if they are related.

It’s a ubiquitous surname that guarantees that the person is Vietnamese, or is at least some fraction so.

What it doesn’t guarantee is how they pronounce it. The correct pronunciation, which is seldom heard, sounds like this (thanks Wikipedia!)–kind of nasally, difficult, and not very pretty. In the U.S., you instead hear simplified pronunciations like Nwin, disyllabic New-yen, or simply Win. These bastardizations are, admittedly, much easier to say and help prevent people from saying Nuh-goo-yin. (People sort of freak out when they see the N and G–two hard consonants–side by side.)

I can’t blame the non-Vietnamese-speaking population for dodging the real pronunciation. Hell, I can barely say it myself. I’ve fluctuated between New-yen and Win because, honestly, I don’t really care. And before you get on your high horse about how I don’t respect my family heritage, let me explain why the name is so common.

According to The New York Times, Nguyen is the 57th most common surname in the United States. It’s not really so much an indication of how many Vietnamese people live in the country, but a reflection on how few family names are out there. Of all the Vietnamese people I know, there are only a handful of different surnames.

In 1802, when the Nguyen Dynasty took power in Vietnam, the Lords often rewarded people who shared the same last name as the ruling emperor. If you were a criminal, changing your name to Nguyen would even help you avoid persecution. Apparently, this was a common trend as successive families rose to power, and the country’s last emperor, Nguyen Bao Dai, was the country’s last ruler until communist forces took over North Vietnam in 1945. As a result, roughly 40% of Vietnamese people around the world bear the same surname. There’s no real family inheritance, and the damn thing takes up, like, eight pages in the San Jose phonebook.

There are some distinct advantages about Nguyen though. As I said earlier, it almost immediately defines you as Vietnamese to strangers, and if the person is somewhat informed on distinguishing Asian ethnicities, it avoids the awkward “So what are you?” question. There’s also the chance that I might marry someone who is also named Nguyen (it’s so common that the probability is high enough to consider), and I could double up my last name and pronounce it Win-Win.

And, of course, there’s the occasional cashier who hands back my credit card and boldly says, “Thank you, Mr. Nwin/New-yen/Win.” For some reason, when people think they know the “correct” pronunciation, they glow with pride. Look at that; I just made this cashier’s day without actually doing anything.

Still, such a common name presents an odd situation. On one hand, its prevalence and history remove it from having any real familial identity; on the other hand, this shared experience between Nguyens–stories of mispronunciation and misspellings–create something else to be identified with.

So next time you meet two Nguyens, don’t ask if they’re related. Instead, amuse them by asking about the grossest mispronunciation of Nguyen that they’ve heard. And then try to convince them to marry each other.

Kevin Nguyen is a founding editor of The Bygone Bureau. His only marketable skill is an above-average knowledge of European geography. He has been useless since the introduction of the atlas in 1477. Reach him by email or follow his Twitter account.