My Vietnamese Name

When I was a student at the Army Language School (now called the Defense Language Institute or DFI) in 1959, it was customary to assign students a name in the language they were studying. For reasons unknown, I had been ordered to study Vietnamese, a language I had never heard of—in those days we called that part of the world French Indochina. My instructors dubbed me Trần văn Lợi.

In Vietnamese, the family name comes first—that was Trần (陳). The only place I ever came across Trần while speaking Vietnamese was as a family name, but it has a variety of meanings: “ancient” in old Vietnamese, and in modern Vietnamese it can mean “roof-top.” Ở trần means “naked,” and trần tục means “dusty.”

The middle name văn (文) literally means knowledge or culture in Sino-Vietnamese; it’s just a filler. And Lợi (利) means “profit,” but it was assigned to me not because of its meaning but because it was as close to the sound of “Glenn” as the Vietnamese could find.

Because there are only half a dozen or so surnames in Vietnamese (the most common is Nguyễn, the name of the last Vietnamese dynasty, which ruled the unified Vietnam from 1802 to 1884), the given name is the one used to identify an individual. So I was “Ông Lợi,” that is, Mr. Lợi. Or just Lợi with people on friendly terms, like calling me “Tom.” Lợi is pronounced low in the voice with a glottal stop and sounds like single syllable version of LUH-EE.

I have loved languages all my life. I taught myself French and Italian as a child, had four years of Latin in high school, and studied German (among other things) in college. I enlisted in the army to go to the language school to study Chinese, a language that fascinated me. I was disappointed to be assigned Vietnamese but had no choice. I ended up loving the language. It was the first Asian and tonal language I studied (Chinese came later), and learning it taught me a great deal about how languages work. So to this day, I still cherish my assigned name, Lợi.

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