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The Words Just Get Ickier

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THE WORDS JUST GET ICKIER

By Andrew Biggs

Spent a lovely morning down at Ickier the other day.

Actually I’d been wanting to check it out since the week it opened, when the flood was at its peak, but I was smart enough to know 40 billion cubic metres of putrid water wouldn’t deter tens of thousands of local shoppers.

It was a little quieter this week when I made it to Ickier, conveniently located a few kilometres from my home in Bangna.

I’m sorry. Have I been calling it “Ickier”?

A momentary lapse of concentration, dear reader, brought on by the effects of spending more than two decades in this wonderful country  — that, along with a foolish drinking competition I allowed myself to enter last night.

You see, the rest of the world calls it “Ikea”. In Thailand, it’s “Ickier.”

Ickier?

I am wondering if this word is the comparative form of “icky”, an adjective used to describe something offensive and distasteful. I didn’t think anything was going to stand in the way of my unbridled joy at having an Ikea so close to home. The minute I saw the sign go up outside the concrete monolith on Bangna Trat Highway I immediately dispensed with my original thoughts of “yet another ugly edifice adorning this godforsaken part of town.” I felt warm comforting adrenaline shots in my nether regions instead.

What could possibly go wrong?

Never ask that question to yourself in Thailand; it’s like opening an umbrella indoors.

I first saw it on a pick-up truck six months ago. “Property of Ickier, Thailand” it read in Thai, and I swerved in horror, almost smashing into a motorist making an illegal turn in front of me.

No. Surely not. Surely they’re not going to twist a perfectly lovely word like Ikea and make it Ickier?

Like so many other dubious incidents in my life I chose to block it out. Then last week I was asked by a Twitter follower how the new Ikea store pronounced its name. When I replied that it was “eye-kee-a”, the replies came thick and fast.

“I think you’re wrong,” one of them answered. I could almost sense the waggling finger and creased brow of the writer.

“It’s ‘Ickier’,” another said. “That’s how the company itself writes it.”

“The Thai way of “ickier” is correct … ‘eye-kea’ is the way it’s pronounced in the United States only. Here in Thailand, we pronounce it the same way as the Swedes.”

What a hornet’s nest I had stirred up. I stuck to my guns for a good half hour before self-doubt starting knocking on my front door. Maybe it was just an Australian thing … maybe the whole world really did pronounce it “Ickier”.

Or maybe not. English company names do have a habit of winding up a little askew when they get turned into Thai.

Thai does not have the “TH” and “SH” sounds, for example. If your company thus happens to be unfortunately named “Theo’s Shoes” and you set up a branch in Bangkok, it’s going to be forever sounding like “T-O-Choo” when your Thai staff answer the phone.

I don’t need to make up a name. There are far too many real-life examples out there.

“Andrew, what is wonn-wor in English?” one of my students asked me exactly one week ago.

Thank goodness for all my years in Thailand. A newly-arrived English teacher would have scratched his head and said: “Wonn-wor? I’m sorry. I don’t know that Thai word.”

He isn’t speaking Thai. Neither is he technically speaking English. He’s speaking Swedish.

He’s asking about “Volvo”, another company which, like Ikea, has had radical cosmetic surgery making the leap from English to Thai and has come out looking like Joan Rivers first thing in the morning.

First, there is no “V” in Thai, so they replace it with a “W”.  Second, the final sound of a syllable in Thai cannot end in “L”, so “Vol” becomes “Wonn”. Volvo becomes Wonn-wor.

I don’t have a problem with this. We can’t expect every word to fit seamlessly into other languages. The Thai language, too, has a few sounds that English doesn’t have. That vowel sound in Don “Muang” Airport is a killer for native English speakers, and we mispronounce it so that it sounds like the Thai word for “purple” rather than “city” as it is intended to be.

But what of foreign companies with names that fit perfectly into Thai? Why change them?

Take Au Bon Pain, an American company that stole a few French words and turned them into a delicious sandwich chain. In Thai, Au Bon Pain is actually pronounced “Oh-Pong-Bang”, which kind of sums up that motorcyclist I just mentioned had his name been Pong.

Oh-Pong-Bang … that to me is an outrageous waste of enunciation energy. Why not just say it like the rest of the world does? Don’t we have a hard enough time understanding what makes Thais tick; why complicate life further by calling it Oh-Pong-Bang??

The truth is, there is nothing in the English pronunciation of “Au Bon Pain” that merits any changes when it slides into the Thai language. It works nicely, just like, well, Ikea does.

Remember Bata shoes as a kid? I was constantly nagging my mother to buy me those Bata Scouts with the compass in the soles; how I wanted a pair of those when I was 10 years old in case I got lost in the forests of Sunnybank.

(She finally relented; the compass clapped out within a month, rendering me directionless … to this day.)

Well Bata is big in Thailand too, only it isn’t known as “Bata.” They are “Baja,” as in rhyming with “Rajah”.

Why? You may as well ask why there is no Sukhumvit Soi 82. It is one of the great mysteries of Thailand.

There is nothing difficult about pronouncing “Bata” in Thai, just like there is nothing difficult about “Ikea” for a Thai to pronounce … so why go and bastardize a perfectly good furniture store name?

The answer lies in the “I” at the beginning of the word.

In Thai, a short sharp “I” is a derogatory way of describing somebody. If you didn’t like me, for example, you can call me “I-Andrew” with a scowl, though not to my face because it’s very rude. I am guessing “Ikea” sounds like a rude way of referring to a person by the name of “Kea”.

With the polite but firm put-downs of my Twitter followers still ringing in my head, I did end up going to down to Ickier this week.

And what I shock I got.

Imagine my surprise when, upon picking up the Ickier Catalogue I noticed the name of the company in Thai.

It’s not pronounced Ickier at all. It’s “eye-kea”!

Worse, when I got home I did a Google search and it turns out even the Swedes don’t pronounce it “Ickier” (they call it “Ee-Kay-A”, bless their hearts). I felt like doing a Tom Cruise and jumping on the couch and punching the air with joy. I was right! It really is Ikea!

The mystery remains as to how Ikea turned into Ickier in the eyes of most Thais when even the company transliterates it so that it is pronounced like the rest of the world.

Never mind. At least next time your new Thai girlfriend exclaims: “Buy me a new TV at Ickier!” feign ignorance and change the subject … to lunch at Or Pong Bang, perhaps.

/Andrew



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