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Book Review: ๕,๐๐๐ สำนวนไทย (5000 Thai Idioms)

Book Review: 5000 Thai Idioms

Review: 5000 Thai Idioms…

Title: ๕,๐๐๐ สำนวนไทย (นับแต่อดีตจวบจนปัจุบัน)
5000 Thai idioms; from the past right on up to now! [paraphrased]
Author: เอกรัตน์ อุดมพร
ISBN: 978-974521855-0

First off I wanna say that “5000 Thai Idioms” was recommended by David Rubin who is DavidandBui from the Thai Language dot com dictionary/forum website. They have a great website! It has a KILLER online dictionary, a free Thai dictionary iPhone app, good learning Thai resources and a great supportive forum about the Thai language.

I was more than a little hesitant to buy this book; seeing as both the idioms and the meanings are all Thai. Sometimes I’ve found when using Thai/Thai only reference material, the meanings provided don’t make the word’s definition any clearer (at least not to me).

My fears were groundless and I was pleasantly surprised paging thru it. First off the font was easy to read. It wasn’t one of those squirrelly Thai fonts which for some reason are so popular. You know the kind, they’re so stylized and so microscopic that you can’t tell if it’s a ไม้โท or a ไม้หันอากาศ (or at least I can’t, even with my reading glasses on!) Also I immediately noticed that the meanings were not only pretty clear, but written at level of Thai where I could make the leap in logic on what most of them meant without having to break out the dictionary. I have found the less you can use a dictionary and the more you can make out the meanings by context, the faster your Thai comprehension improves. There’s nothing worse than trying to read Thai but every other word you have to break out the dictionary because you’re reading stuff way over your current level of comprehension. I think this book would work for a high-beginner or low-intermediate reader IF they really wanted to read it. If you have a Thai native speaker/reader handy it’d be even easier!

The book is broken down alphabetically ก-ฮ and there is some bleed over, where a particular saying is in more than once place due to different ways it can be phrased. The idioms I’m going to use in this article are just ones I pulled out at random from the ones I highlighted, so they’re in no particular order.

I’ve just spent the last four months reading this book cover to cover, idiom by idiom, highlighting ones which I knew compared to an English idiom, ones which I thought were novel, and ones which would “fit” with the version of Thai I routinely speak. So far I’ve run several hundred of what I picked out as my favorites past the Thaiz I know. Some are hits, as in they know them and start reciting them as soon as I’d start saying it. Then again some were misses, and I mean by MILES! Even when I tried to explain them in Thai to Thaiz, they didn’t know what it meant. Sitting Soi side, half-cocked one night with my เพอืนฝูง’s (flock o’ Thai friendz) I actually had to go home, get the book and come back to show them that I wasn’t making up the saying. Now granted this could be due to the fact I speak pretty darned piss-poor Thai as far as clarity which could have been compounded by being half drunk as well.

During the time I’ve been going thru this book I’ve come to realize idioms are “conditions of humanity”. These are things which humans the world over have experienced, time and again, generation after generation and come up with a saying to relate it to one another in whatever language they speak. Once you take into account geography, culture, religion and background, the idioms between English and Thai are really close to each other in meaning. A couple off-the-wall examples are; in English we have “don’t count your chickens before they hatch”, in Thai they have “you shouldn’t sell the bearskin before you kill the bear” ไม่ควรขายหนังหมีก่อนฆ่าหมีได้. Now that’s a pretty strange idiom because I didn’t even know this place had bears, that Thaiz hunted bears or wore bearskins! Thai does have the actual don’t count your chicken idiom in อย่านับไข่ก่อนที่แม่ไก่จะออกไข่ more like “don’t count the eggs until the hen lays them”. Another one we have in English is; “something is better than nothing”. Strangely Thai has; กำขี้ดีกว่ากำตด “A handful of shit is better than a handful of fart”. Now any way you slice it, that idiom carries the same meaning! They have a “pig in a poke” as well with ยอมแมวขาย “dye a cat and sell it”.

It would appear that most if not all the Thai sayings are primarily agrarian based in origin. This is not surprising, seeing as not very many generations ago most of the people in the country were farmers and a good portion are to this day. It’s no different than the sayings in American English, most which have their roots tied firmly to our pioneer/farming background. In English we have “cotton’s short but the weeds are tall”, In Thai ข้าวยากหมากแพง “rice is difficult to grow, betel nut is expensive”. Both equate to hard times. Funny enough Thai has the “kill two birds with one stone” although they say ยิงปืนนัดเดียวได้นกสองตัว “shoot the gun once get two birds”.

There are oh-so many doz-don’tz, shouldz-shouldn’tz in the book. I mean the section which starts with อย่า is just staggering; in fact it’s 20 pages worth of entries! Some of the don’ts I just plain ไม่เก็ท. Here’re a couple examples; อย่ากินขี้ อย่าสี (ร่วมเพศ) หมา now that translates as “don’t eat shit, don’t have sex with dogs”. The meaning seems to say that some things you shouldn’t do in public, but even in private that’s out there. อย่าควักเอาลูกตาออกแล้วเอาเมล็ดมะกอกยัด “don’t pluck out your eye and stuff your eye socket with an olive pit”. The meaning is if you have something good; don’t think you should replace it even if it’s old with something new. They have อย่าใช้คนบ้า and อย่าใช้พ่อแม่, the first is “don’t use crazy people” and the meaning says don’t employ crazy people; the second is don’t employ your father/mother. Anyway, you get my drift. Some are so out there that I mean who would even contemplate doing that to begin with. Did so many people do this that they had to make up idioms warning people about it?

It is also not surprising that a LOT of the sayings are class/face based (or they sure come across to me like that); given these peoples penchant for putting everyone neatly on some mythical ladder rung of success and their fixation on giving, gaining, not losing and saving face. Also there seems to be a real slant towards telling women how to act in relation to their husbands, by an overwhelming factor. However, I didn’t see a whole heck of a lot of idioms which went the other way and told husbands how to act towards their wife!

There’s also TON of Buddhist related stuff in it too. So, if those kinda philosophical, yet wordy saying float your boat, this book will be right up your alley. It’s not that I don’t like those idioms, I do, and they’re good. It’s been pointed out to me, if you nail one of those idioms with a Thai; you’ve got the upper hand for sure. It’s just a lot of them are way too wordy for me to throw into the conversation.

For me an idiom/saying has to meet several criteria; it has to be relevant to whatever I’m talking about, it has to be short enough to spit out without hemming ‘n hawing AND has to drive home the point I’m trying to make using it without the need for me to say more than that idiom.

Some really funny ones about doing something just for the sake of getting it done without regard to quality are เหมือนหมาเลียน้ำร้อน “like a dog licks hot water” and เหมือนลิงล้างก้น “like a money washing its ass”. They’ve got a TON of stupid/foolish comparatives too like สมองหมาปัญญาควาย “brain of a dog, intelligence of a buffalo”. I got quite a kick out of มาไทยไปฝรั่ง for someone who “shows up to work perpetually late, yet leaves right on time”.

While this is a great book chock full of tidbits o’ wisdom, where it’s really lacking is; there should be some notation letting you know if an idiom is ancient, just old, or fairly contemporary. There’s nothing telling you which ones are diamonds and which ones are coal, it’s almost totally hit and miss. Some of the ones I ran past the Thaiz, they’d say, “wow, I haven’t heard that since my grandfather was alive!” To me that sort of saying is a keeper. Mostly because I’m old, and I don’t want to be spouting ภาษาวัยรุ่น-isms as they aren’t age appropriate. It actually struck me as sad to hear some of the sayings aren’t said any more. The younger guys who sit with me had never ever heard quite a few of them, yet they all agreed they had value. There’re some real good sayings in the book and I’d hate to see them fall by the wayside, in today’s modern age.

What I immediately noticed was that there were a LOT of comparatives in relation to a person’s personality (or status in life) by using animals. They have เข้าฝูงกาต้องเป็นกา “enter a flock of crows become a crow” conversely they have เข้าฝูงหงส์ต้องเป็นหงส์ “enter a flock of swans become a swan”. Of course both of these are close to the “birds of a feather flock together” saying. Now they also have crows shouldn’t mix with swans and if that’s not a not so subliminal classist remark I don’t know what is. At one school I regularly visit the teachers teach that same old hack saying “when in Rome do as the romans” with the Thai phrase เข้าเมืองตาหลิ่วต้องหลิ่วตาตาม “enter a town of squinty eyed people, you must squint your eyes too”. I told one of the teachers they should use the crow idiom; เข้าฝูงกาต้องเป็นกา. She said, “oh Tod, we can’t do that because here we have only swans!” I thought it was a great comeback, especially as much of a pain in the ass I probably am for those teachers.

They also have a lot of the same comparative idioms we have in English too; “black as coal” ดำเหมือนถ่าน, “black as gunpowder” ดำเหมือนดินปืน, “black as a crow” ดำเหมือนอีกา, “white as cotton fluff” ขาวเรากับปุยฝ้าย, “white as the pith from a banana tree” ขาวเรากับหยวก, Most of their “hard as” ones are the same; “hard as nails” แข็งเหมือนตะปู, “hard as diamond” แข็งเหมือนเพชร, “hard as a stone” แข็งเหมือนหิน. They also have “dark as ducks liver” ดำตับเป็ด, “black as a banana you covered and forgot about” ดำเหมือนกล้ยวหมกลืม and “black as the bottom of a rice pot” ดำเหมือนดินหม้อ. There are a lot of beautiful as a … and ugly as a … too.. If you’re rich or a high status girl who marries a poor guy, นางฟ้ากับหมาวัด “angel with a temple dog”, conversely, it would appear if a poor girl marries a rich high status guy, she’s a หนูตกถังข้าวสาร “mouse that fell into a tank of raw rice”. For the idiom we have “you can’t fight city hall” they have กินขี้หมาดีกว่าค้าความกับราชการ, which is pretty close, even though I think it fosters the innate fear of people in authority I see Thaiz exhibit more than ours does.

One I thought was quite funny was “curse someone like a chicken pecks the eye of a rat” ด่าเหมือนไก่เจาะตาหนู, which means you just keep on and on at it. A couple good ones when you’re offered food but it isn’t all that tasty are “better than eating dirt” ดีกว่ากินดิน and “better than being hit in the mouth with a stick” ดีกว่าไม้ดีดปาก. “Strike while the iron is hot” or do what needs to be done when it’s appropriate would be กินแกงเมื่อร้อน “eat curry when it’s hot” or ตีเหล็กเมื่อแดง “forge metal when it’s red”.

Not surprisingly Thai has just as many idioms relating to sex as we do. There’s กุหลาบริมทาง “rose on the edge of the path”, ดอกไม้ใกล้ทาง means the same but uses flower, there’s ไก่หลง a “lost chicken” and for a guy there’s จับไก่หลง “catch a lost chicken” and “beat the rice pot” ตีหม้อ. For something that finishes much sooner than expected they have “the sparrow didn’t even have a chance to drink water” นกกระจอกไม่ทันกินน้ำ. They have “meet a beautiful tree when the axe is chipped” เจอไม้งาม เมื่อยามขวานบิ่น, which is to meet someone beautiful when you are otherwise engaged. For a marriage that failed early on they had ก้นหม้อไม่ทันดำ “the bottom of the rice pot didn’t have a chance to blacken”. For a woman who is err, umm, energetic, they have ไฟแรงสูง “high voltage”!

This is getting to be a long book review but I wanted to give you guys a taste of what the book can yield. Believe me there’re a LOT of valuable material in it. I’ve worked some in when taking taxis, talking to Thaiz I’d never met before and to a person they light up. They ask how I knew that and then we’re off to the races talking about this or that. It is easily the best ice-breaker I’ve ever come across.

Cat suggested I write a follow-up to this of a list of idioms and their meanings. So, if you guys think there’s value in learning “Thai idioms according to Tod”. Lemme know I’ll pound ‘em out for you.

Tod Daniels | toddaniels at gmail dot com

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Tod’s specialty is reviewing Thai language schools in Bangkok. And in his years studying Thai he’s also collected a few language learning tips to share with you.

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9 Comments

  1. Thank you Todd!
    Nice article! BTW the bear skin stuff does not exist in English? We have it in French word by word like this and it might come from here….

  2. Michel Boismard

    June 16, 2014 at 7:29 pm

    …There is a very simple and funny formula existing in many Asian tongues meaning”going for a walk”:”Eat wind”.
    Thai:”kin lom”
    Hindi:”hawa khana”
    Indonesian/Malay:”makan angin”
    Burmese has it,I was told.It might be”le’sa”but not sure!
    Any more,anybody?

  3. Angela Savage

    June 17, 2014 at 5:53 pm

    I so wish I could read Thai – or that this book included English translations. I love studying idioms for what they teach us about different cultures. I especially enjoy it when you can find shared meaning in idioms with completely different vocabularies: e.g. ‘out of the frying pan, into the fire’ in English becomes ‘escape the tiger, meet the crocodile’ in Thai, but the meaning is the same, i.e. to go from bad to worse.

    I’d love to see a follow up list of idioms and their meanings (with English translations). In particular, I’ve been trying to track down Thai equivalents to the following English/Australian idioms:

    1. ‘One step forward, two steps back’ (to advance, only to experience setbacks)
    2. ‘Stand out like a sore thumb’ (the French say ‘like a stain’)
    3. ‘Good things come to those who wait for them’ – and the opposite:
    4. ‘Faint heart never won fair maiden’ (i.e. you need to take a risk/be courageous to achieve your heart’s desire).

    Thanks for a wonderful post!

  4. Angela Savage

    June 23, 2014 at 5:28 pm

    Ooh, I thought of another one. Is there an equivalent Thai idiom for ‘No use crying over spilt milk’?

  5. Michel Boismard; that thai phrase เดินกินลม walk-eat-wind carries the same meaning as the english “out for a breath of fresh air”.

    I dunno if you noticed but Thaiz have a fairly strict and rigid set of “rules of engagement” as far as verbal interaction. Thaiz don’t appear any more nosy than people every where. It does seem if they know you they’re hard wired to ask where you’re going, where you’ve been. I think that phrase was cooked up just like the english one was, to answer the question without giving any information.

    Angela Savage; I’m sure those idioms exist in Thai once we take into account for the geography, religion & culture..

    In english one step forward two steps back means you NEVER make progress. If you do the math 1 step forward minus 2 steps back equals negative 1 step, or behind where you started. How about we switch it around and say two steps forward one step back? That makes a lot more sense as you’re making some progress despite unforeseen circumstances. I’m sure there’s one like that in thai, I’ll just hafta look around for it.

    Now they do have ไม่ลอง ไม่รู้ never try, never know, ไม่กล้าเสี่ยงก็ไม่มีวันชนะ never bold enough to take the risk, never have a day where you win and ไม่เรียนไม่รู้ ไม่ดูไม่เห็น ไม่ทำไม่เป็น don’t learn don’t know, don’t look don’t see, don’t do don’t get, which the book says means if you never start doing something you’ll never achieve success at it.

    I do remember reading one which was close to the no use crying over spilled milk, and after looking thru the book I found it again. Thai has น้ำราดลงพื้นเอาคืนมิได้, water poured on the floor cannot be returned. The meaning was after something (bad) happened you can’t get things back the way they were so you shouldn’t waste the time trying.

    There are a few idioms for look out of place, but they’re thai’d err tied to the unredeeming penchant of shoehorning different levels of society into their respective cubby-holes via animal or color references. I found them more interesting in the not so subtle discrimination and brain washing they convey than I did in their idiomatic value.

  6. Michel Boismard

    July 1, 2014 at 5:17 pm

    Yes Tod,the formula can be an evasive answer to an invasive question.
    But apart the “psy factor”,it seems to me that the notion of”eating”of wind being consistent in many asian tongues shows a common poetic imagery.The English”out for a breath of fresh air”being
    more to the fact(we actually breathe air and not eat it,right?)…
    Regards,Michel B.

  7. In French: prendre l’air ( to take the air)

  8. Tod, my apologies for not having thanked you earlier for that feedback. I really appreciate it.

  9. Tod,
    Excellent review on what seems to be an interesting and useful publication.
    I assume it’s easy to buy.
    I liked especially (and it’s the first time I’ve seen it): นกกระจอกไม่ทันกินน้ำ.

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