GREAT MOMENTS IN THAI ENGLISH
By Andrew Biggs
This week environmentalists cautiously hailed a victory of sorts, as the government agreed to set zero the proposed Krabi coal-fired power plant.
Don’t worry, dear reader. It is not necessary to understand that first paragraph. I was just testing you. Or rather, I was testing myself.
For the last few days I have been trying to create a grammatically-sound English sentence using the phrase “set zero”. Contrary to what you may be thinking, this activity was not dreamed up to while away the time in an otherwise sluggish work week.
“Set zero” is the current vocabulary de jour in Thailand, or more specifically, the Thai language. This is a common occurrence; many English words have pole-vaulted themselves into Thai such as “okay”, “bye bye”, “discredit” and, weirdly, “hors d’oeuvres”. Thais like short sharp English words (like “hors d’oeuvres”?) and feel much more comfortable saying “happy”, for example, instead of mee khwam suk, a phrase that is an interminable three syllables long.
Now and again an English phrase pops up in Thai and spreads like a road rage clip on Facebook. That is what has happened with “set zero” just this last week with the coal power plant controversy.
Actually, it was resurrected. “Set zero” was first used in 2013 when the Yingluck government was mischievously pushing a reconciliation law.
The phrase faded away along with the law and the Yingluck government. But it is back. Last Monday’s announcement of the moratorium in order to assess environmental impact meant the government was going to “set zero” the proposed Krabi power plant.
I have nothing against English words and phrases bleeding into the Thai language, but what about a phrase like “set zero” — that doesn’t exist in the English language? Google the phrase; up comes pages and pages of Thai entries. “Set zero” is technically not an English phrase. It is a Thai one.
Why go to all the trouble of making up a brand new English phrase when we already have “start again”, “reset” and “back to square one”?
When I explained this via the media this week, many Thais were genuinely surprised to hear “set zero” was a figment of any reputable English dictionary’s imagination. I have even added it to my Top 5 list of English Words Invented by Thais, sitting at #5. And the rest?
When Thais want to show support for a friend down on their luck, they pat that friend’s shoulder, crease their brows and say: “Fighting!” Do that to any hard-luck native English speaker and he’ll reply: “Huh?” Do that to any hard-luck Thai and he’s answer: “Thank you.”
“Fighting” is a bastardization of “Keep fighting!” or “Fight on!” or even “Don’t give up” if we want to venture into three-word sentences. This one they didn’t invent; they adopted it from South Korea, land of the soppiest soap operas in human history which get lapped up by Thais. A few years ago I got up on the wrong side of the bed and, in a huff, tweeted that “fighting” was not used by native English speakers and Thais had made the word up themselves. I had a few snippy responses from Thais, saying it was used in South Korea so it had to be right. One wonders about the future of this country if it is gleaning its English knowledge from South Korea. Uppa Gangnam Style to you, too!
#3 Again, please?
We native English speakers speak quickly with accents sometimes impossible to understand. What does a Thai do when he or she cannot understand? The population is evenly divided. Half will nod and smile, pretending to understand, while searching in their peripheral vision for the nearest exit. The other half will say: “Again, please?”
Thais are mortified to learn that this succinct yet quaint phrase doesn’t exist outside the 77 provinces of Thailand. Which is a shame, since “Again please?” is kind of good. It’s certainly easier to say than the clunky “Would you repeat that, please?” and friendlier than the guttural “Huh?”
#2 Hyde Park
Only in Thailand could you take the proper noun of a popular park in London and turn it into an intransitive verb.In the Thai language, the verb “to Hyde Park” means “to say something in public”. For example: “The Prime Minister will Hyde Park about set zeroing the Krabi power plant project.” Again, please?
Here’s the gerund form: “Under martial law, politicians are barred from Hyde Parking until the next elections.” I am assuming the past participle is regular: “I have Hyde Parked since dawn.”
Isn’t that wonderful? But wait. There is an even better one.
I wrote about this once before. Please allow me to summarize it again, as it is priceless.
The Thai phrase ded-sa-molay means “dead”. For example: “The Krabi power plant is ded-sa-molay.” “If you Hyde Park one more time, there will be no set zeroing for you; you’ll be ded-sa-molay.”
“Ded-sa-molay” is not Thai. The phrase comes from English. Say it out loud. Does it sound familiar?
In 1954 Dean Martin scored a #1 hit with a song called “That’s Amore.” It was a big hit in Thailand, too. “When the moon hits your eye like a big pizza pie, that’s amore …”
Thais misheard the word “dead” in the first syllable of “That’s amore” and started to use the song title in place of the word “dead”. To this day, Thai slang for “dead” is actually the title of a hideous old love song whose title means “That’s love.” Now you understand why I love living in Thailand!
As we leave this list, it must be pointed out in fairness that English has been influenced by Thailand.
The idiomatic “white elephant”, for example, comes from the ancient kingdom of Siam. Any albino elephant born became the property of the King immediately. It was considered auspicious to present a baby albino elephant to royalty, while at the same time quietly accepted that this giant animal had no use for the owner on his farm, since it had to be given away. Thus emerged the idiom “white elephant”; something big and bulky that serves no function.
More recently “ladyboy” has entered English dictionaries after hovering like a drone around the official lexicon for years. It’s in Oxford now, though Merriam Webster is still putting up a fight. And finally, for my Australian readers, the legendary horse Phar Lap comes from the Thai word for “lightning”.
Creating new phrases from English words shows enterprise on the part of Thais. And anyway, there are more English-as-a-second-language speakers than there are native speakers in the world today. The lines between what is right and wrong are blurred.
Another thing: it is imagination and innovation that is required in these modern times, as Thailand launches yet another cute little English phrase, “Thailand 4.0”, in an effort to push the country into the digital age. How a coal-fired power plant fits into any plans for a modernized society remains as mysterious as the origins of “set zero” but hey, who am I to rain on Thailand’s parade? Fighting, guys, fighting!