A few years ago I caused a minor commotion on TV and online in Pantip Plaza chatrooms when I made an announcement that shook the Thai student world to its very foundations.
In a nutshell, I told everybody to stop referring to any first-year university student as a “freshy” because in the English-speaking world this word didn’t exist. And if a single Thai could find me an international dictionary with the word listed, I would run naked down Silom Road in broad daylight.
The news would have been less shocking had I announced I was moving to Pattaya to get a sex-change and begin my new life as Andrea. This was 2004, pre-instant-messaging, but the reaction was still swift. Surely Andrew couldn’t be serious … but he was.
I was tired of hearing young Thais saying and writing: “I am a freshy at Thammasat University.” How wonderful you got into that esteemed institution, nong (น้อง), but please, if you’re going to speak English, use the proper English word. The word is “freshman” (เฟรช’เมิน), not the Thai made-up “freshy”.
I know, I know. I sound like a nit-picking party-pooper. It’s the kind of topic that curmudgeons who infest the Letters To The Editor pages of the Bangkok Post attack with relish. But I mean, on the grand scheme of things, who cares that Thais say “freshy” while the rest of the world says “freshman”?
I do. I think it’s interesting and curious. “Freshy” is a word derived from English but it just hasn’t been yanked out of the English language and thrown into Thai like other words such as “happy”, “u-turn” and “short-time hotel”. Those words made it across safely; not so poor old “freshman”.
“Freshman” didn’t make the jump intact. Somewhere along the line it got castrated; the “man” was gelded and a prissy little “y” slotted into its place.
How did it happen? I would guess it comes from the fact modern Thais know that we add a “y” to the end of our names to make them less formal. Growing up in Sunnybank I was always called “Biggsy” (when I wasn’t “that strange little boy with the big ears and off-putting facial tic”). When I went to the States I was “Andy”, something the Americans arbitrarily decided without ever asking me … I mean, who in their right mind would choose the dinky-sounding “Andy” over the more distinguished “Andrew” – other than that Gibb brother, of course, and look what happened to him.
Because of this knowledge we now have a nation of young Thais with a “y” at the end of their nicknames. Their parents first dispensed with traditional Thai nicknames such as “moo” (หมู – pig) and ”oo-an” (อ้วน – fat) and started calling themselves such English names as “Gift” (กิฟทฺ), “Bank” (แบงค์) and “Donut” (โดนัต). Can you blame them? Give me “Gift” over “Pig” anyday! But the new generation is calling themselves “Gifty” (กิฟตี้), “Banky” (แบ๊งคี่) and even “Donuty” (โดนัทตี้), as I spotted once in a Sanook.com teen chatroom, which is the punishment I get for trawling such websites.
That’s where it all started. From this the Thais figured a “freshman” could be a “freshy” and the rest is history.
I’m not so black-hearted as to grasp Nong Gifty by her delicate wrist and demand she stop ruining the English language by warping perfectly good English words. Though I have to admit at the time I took the opportunity to expand my crusade against genital mutilation of English vocabulary to other words.
For example, all across Thailand, on graduation day, there are giant CONGRATULATION signs hung up across trees and faded concrete university blocks for young graduates to have their pictures taken. CONGRATULATION is probably freshy’s sibling; it, too, went under the knife during the linguistic leap.
Elisabeth Kubler Ross says there are five stages to dying and I think I went through a similar number with CONGRATULATION. The first was bewilderment that one could accurately write such a long and complicated word, then let the whole team down at the very last letter by omitting the S. Then I went through refusal to believe, as I scoured dictionaries trying to see if indeed, the English language has the word “congratulation” (it does, as in “a letter of congratulation”). The next stage was anger, albeit briefly, until I finally settled on sullen acceptance that this simple Sunnybank boy with the big ears and blinky-bill eyes could never change a nation of 62 million people.
Or could he? Since 2004 I’ve notice the addition of that final S on the graduation signs of some of the better colleges around town, even upcountry. Could it be my constant bleatings had an effect, or do I simply have tabs on myself?
Meanwhile “freshy” continues to run rampant and unabated across campuses. The word no longer means “first year student” and now extends to anybody with a fresh face and youthful demeanor, which suggests this column is even written by a freshy.
What’s interesting is that while Thais have been keen to embrace “freshy”, what about freshy’s under-achieving older brother “sophomore”? Why aren’t myriad Thai students announcing “I am a sophomory” … or even a “juny” or “seny”? In my world those three levels of students have as much right to be castrated as the humble freshman – how did they get off scot free?
Oh look, really, it doesn’t upset me. I kind of like the fact Thais use their creative juices when it comes to the English language — and who says the language is set in stone anyway? If 62 million Thais refer to university students as “freshies”, well that’s three times the population of Australia (and 3,770 times the population of Sunnybank). Majority rules; consider it added to MacMillan’s latest tome. This is what happens with language. Next century some big-eared facial-ticked English teacher’s going to be berating Thais who still use the old-fashioned “freshman”.
It’s already heading that way.
Not long after I threw down my public challenge in the effort to eradicate “freshy”, a young Thai posted a comment on the popular Pantip.com website. Freshy, indeed, could be found in an international dictionary.
The Microsoft Encarta Reference Library 2004 (damn you, Bill Gates!) listed the word as a “shortening and alteration of the word freshwater”. For example, an Australian freshwater crocodile is referred to as a “freshy”.
I was fully justified when I scorned the news, announcing in a huff that crocodiles and university freshmen were non-intersecting Venn diagrams, except when the latter went swimming in north Queensland swamps. But my victory was short-lived.
Another student posted that she had a copy of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, and there was this entry:
“Freshy, (slang): a freshman in a college, university or secondary school.”
Clearly one of the Webster’s editors spends his annual holidays halfway around the world in the Silom area otherwise how would they know? Who told them? How could they find out?
The news led to a feeling of “me and my big mouth” in the pit of my stomach, though naturally I never let on. Suddenly there were lots of posts on Pantip.com from Thai teenagers demanding I fulfill my part of the bargain.
I should be happy. In the twilight of my life, there are vast swathes of Thai youth just dying to see me naked.