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Thai Language Thai Culture: A Sticky Problem

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A Sticky Problem…

I was reading one of those Thai expat blogs recently when I came across someone discussing the Thai word for “stingy” (seems like his girlfriend uses this word with him often). To add a little humor to his blog he did a direct translation of the Thai word for “stingy”, ขี้เหนียว /kêe-nǐeow/. ขี้ /kêe/ means “sh!t” he said and เหนียว /nǐeow/ means “sticky”. So, according to him, his girlfriend was calling him “sticky sh!t”. Good try. But the blogger, like Rick was about the “waters” of Casablanca, has been misinformed.

The problem our blogger (and many expats) have with this interesting little word is that they have learned only one definition of the word ขี้ /kêe/. Since one of the definitions really is “feces or excrement”, many people think that all uses of this word have a connection with this meaning. But this little word, the root of dozens of good polite Thai words, is a little more robust than that.

The following are the three basic definitions of ขี้ /kêe/:

ขี้ /kîi/
Waste product; feces; excrement
Characterized by, given to, having the quality of
Indicates a bad or negative character trait

Here are a number of words using ขี้ /kêe/, none of which are off-color, and none having anything to do with “sticky sh!t”. Note that the meanings of a lot of the words using ขี้ /kêe/ are exactly the same as their roots. The prefix just adds a bit of feeling (usually negative as in Category 3) to the word. I have split the words into categories depending on which Category of ขี้ /kêe/ the word falls under.

Category 1: Waste product; feces; excrement…

Example:
ขี้กบ /kêe gòp/ – wood shavings (กบ: capenter’s plane, also frog)
ขี้กบ: the waste product from a carpenter’s plane, wood shavings, or literally frog droppings.

ขี้เขม่า /kêe kà-mào/ – soot (เขม่า: soot)
ขี้โคลน /kêe klohn/ – muck; mud; grime (โคลน: mud)
ขี้ตา /kêe dtaa/ – eye snot; eye secretion (ตา: eye)
ขี้เถ้า /kêe táo/ – ash (เถ้า: ashes, cinder)
ขี้บุหรี่ /kêe bù~rèe/ – cigarette ash (บุหรี่: cigarette)
ขี้ผึ้ง /kêe pêung/ – beeswax (ผึ้ง: bee)
ขี้ฝุ่น /kêe fùn/ – dust; dirt (ฝุ่น: dust, powder, fine particles)
ขี้มูก /kêe mûk/ – snot; mucus; boogers (มูก: mucus)
ขี้ยางลบ /kêe yaang-lóp/ – eraser shavings (ยางลบ: eraser, rubber)
ขี้รังแค /kêe rang-kae/ – dandruff (รังแค: dandruff)
ขี้เลื่อย /kêe lêuay/ – sawdust (เลื่อย: saw)

Category 2: Characterized by, given to, having the quality of…

Example:
ขี้โกง /kêe gohng/ – deceitful; cheating; crooked (โกง: to cheat)
ขี้โกง: having a cheating quality, deceitful

ขี้กลัว /kêe glua/ – always afraid, “scaredy cat” (กลัว: afraid, fear)
ขี้เกียจ /kêe giàt/ – lazy (เกียจ: idle, inactive)
ขี้ขโมย /kêe kà~moi/ – thieving; pilfering (ขโมย: to steal)
ขี้ขลาด /kêe klàat/ – cowardly (ขลาด: fearful)
ขี้เหนียว /kêe nǐeow/ – stingy (เหนียว: sticky, tough)
ขี้คุก /kêe kúk/- jailbird; prison inmate (คุก: jail, prison)
ขี้คุย /kêe kui/ – boastful (คุย: chat, speak)
ขี้งอน /kêe ngawn/ – peevish; petulant; churlish; fractious (งอน: to pout, sulk)
ขี้แง /kêe ngae/ – whiny; [is a] crybaby (แง: whine)
ขี้ใจน้อย /kêe jai nói/ – over sensitive (ใจน้อย: easily offended, sensitive)
ขี้บ่น /kêe bòn/ – complainer; nagging (บ่น: to complain)
ขี้เมา /kêe mâo/ – drunkard; drunken; very drunk; often drunk (เมา: drunk)
ขี้โมโห /kêe moh-hǒh/ – resentful; easily mad; irritable (โมโห: angry)
ขี้แย /kêe yae/ – given to crying; crybaby (แย: whimsical)
ขี้โรค /kêe rôhk/ – sickly; frail; weak; ailing (โรค: disease)
ขี้ลืม /kêe leum/ – absent minded; forgetful (ลืม: forget)
ขี้เล่น /kêe lên/ – playful; joking (เล่น: play)
ขี้อาย /kêe aai/ – shy; feel shy; is shy; timid (อาย: shy, ashamed)
ขี้อิจฉา /kêe ìt-chǎa/ – envious, jealous (อิจฉา: envy )
ขี้สงสัย /kêe sǒng-sǎi/ – suspicious; dubious; doubtful; skeptical (สงสัย: suspect)
ขี้สงสาร /kêe sǒng-sǎan/ – overly sensitive; soft hearted (สงสาร: pity)
ขี้หึง /kêe hěung/ – jealous (หึง: jealous)
ขี้เหล้า /kêe lâo/ – a drunk; alcoholic (เหล้า: alcohol)

Category 3: A bad or negative character trait…

Most of the words in Category 1 and 2 sound a bit negative. Here are a couple that leave no doubts:

ขี้กลาก /kêe-glàak/ – ringworm (กลาก: ringworm)
ขี้ข้า /kêe-kâa/ – slave; servant (ข้า: servant)
ขี้เซา /kêe sao/ – halfsleep; sleepy; sluggish; torpid (เซา: calm down)
ขี้อ้อน /kêe ôn/ – crybaby (อ้อน: to beg)

Special cases…

ขี้นก /kêe nók/ – (usually preceded by ฝรั่ง /fà~ràng/) fake; inferior; worthless (ฝรั่ง: guava, foreigner, ขี้นก: bird dropping)

The guava, being introduced from the West Indies, was referred to as a foreign or ฝรั่ง /fà~ràng/ fruit. There is a special kind of guava called ฝรั่งขี้นก /fà~ràng kêe nók/ which is deemed a worthless fruit since no one would buy it. This doesn’t lessen the opinion of many an expat that the Thais are calling all ฝรั่ง /fà~ràng/ or foreigners, usually westerners, worthless bird droppings. You can take your pick of which definition is more fun. It is probably a bit of both as Thais simply love word-play of all kinds. I have heard women of the night refer to stingy expats as ฝรั่งขี้นก /fà~ràng kêe nók/ or worthless foreigners. Just know that if someone calls you this it is definitely not a compliment.

พริกขี้หนู /prík kêe nǒo/ – chili pepper (ขี้หนู: mouse droppings)

These little green and red chili peppers are to be eaten in limited quantities except for those without the taste buds for “hot”. It is probably their shape that gave them their name. They look exactly like their namesake.

Hugh Leong
Retire 2 Thailand
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Hugh Leong loves explaining things. And during his 40 plus years of trying to learn Thai and its culture, he learned to love the cross-cultural aspect of living in a foreign country and speaking its language. His series, Thai Language Thai Culture, covers various aspects of learning Thai, and how the Thai culture influences how we say things.

19 Comments

  1. Wow!! to many Kees in Thai language. It makes me feel bad. Ok..I suggest, some words in category 2, we use Chob (ชอบ) instead of Kee. I think it’s replaceable. It doesn’t always mean you like it, but rather you do that action a lot or too much, just the same meaning as Kee.

  2. Thanks for this, Cat. We were just discussing ขี้ words in my Thai class last week, but the conversation was not nearly as detailed as your post was.

  3. Andrew Biggs (at least) once wrote a typically entertaining bit about ขี้ words in his เมืองไทยในสายตาพม column. Originally published in เนชั่นสุดสัปดาห์ it’s also included in the final (รอบสุถท้าย) volume of those same collected essays. Published in 2543 that’s probably hard to find now but maybe Andrew is reading and would like to post a reprise?

    Also interesting to learn that there is actually a fruit called ฝรั่งขี้นก. I had never heard that, or what the “lady of the night” said, but only the first definition below: a Thai who apes Westerners.

    The way it was explained to me is that birds eat guava seeds, which then sprout from their droppings in the most unlikely places. I’ve heard the phrase used (and used it myself) in that sense many times, but the other two senses are both new to me.

    http://www.thai-language.com/id/209313

    [showing disapproval] a Thai follower of European of American customs; a Thai who puts on airs as if he or she was a Westerner; a Thai who apes Westerners

    NOTES: Though the Royal Though defined by the Royal Institute as: “คนที่วางท่าเป็นฝรั่ง,” this phrase was also heard being used to criticize low-class (inferior, insignificant, meaningless or worthless) foreigners (esp. Westerners).

    น. ชื่อฝรั่งพันธุ์หนึ่ง ผลเล็ก ไส้แดง, โดยปริยายหมายถึงคนที่วางท่าเป็นฝรั่ง.

    magnoliathailand.com/webboard/index.php?topic=316.0

    ฝรั่งขี้นกพบได้ทั่วไป เวลาสุกจะมีกลิ่นหอมเฉพาะตัวและมีเนื้อแดง ความที่เมล็ดเยอะมากเลยต้องแอบทานเพราะโดนขู่อยู่เรื่อยว่าทำให้เป็นไส้ติ่งได้ เดี๋ยวนี้เจอฝรั่งแป้น ฝรั่งสีทอง ฝรั่งเวียดนาม…..ตีตลาดจนแทบไม่เจอฝรั่งขี้นกอีกเลย

  4. Hey Jessi, A lot of these ขี้ words are not too bad (the point Hugh is making I believe).

    Ok, one of my favourite all time words IS cacca, which is the same in about six languages (one is new to me).

    Josh, What was the explanation you received in class? Similar?

  5. Hi Mac. Your search got me to do one of my own, but instead I used ‘Rikker” for one of the keywords.

    Rikker: If we were to extrapolate the meaning of ขี้ from all the compounds it’s found in, it means something general like “waste” or “residue”, including not just bodily fluids but the by-product of some kind of action. One example of a non-bodily ขี้ word is ขี้เลื่อยไม้ “wood shavings”, like you put in a hamster cage.

    But ขี้ on its own usually refers to feces, and is also a less-than-polite verb for defecate. So my lame joke about กลัวขี้ would be understood as a reference to actual crap, while ขี้ตา and ขี้หู don’t conjure images of feces in the Thai mind any more than ขี้กลัว, I’d say.

    It’s an interesting subject for westerners because we can’t seem to get beyond the notion that since ขี้ is used to create other words, the new word then must have something to do with ขี้ as well.

  6. Wow! I knew this would be a fun topic.

    Mac,

    Thanks for the explanations. I have also heard the story you referred to about how the ฝรั่งขี้นก got its name. Sounds logical to me.

    In the thai-language.com definition you linked to, the last definition is “khee nohk [usually preceded by ฝรั่ง ] fake; phoney; bogus; spurious; pretended; feigned; sham; low-class; inferior; insignificant; meaningless; worthless”. Remember, I said I was going with the definition which was the most fun to use.

    I would guess that if you called a Thai a ฝรั่งขี้นก then we would use the first definition,”คนที่วางท่าเป็นฝรั่ง”, and if you called a Farang a ฝรั่งขี้นก then it would be the second definition, “low-class (inferior, insignificant, meaningless or worthless) foreigners (esp. Westerners)”. I had never heard the first one, but have heard the second one lots (never referring to me of course).

    I would love to see the Andrew Biggs’ article. I like his teaching style. If anyone has it (or Andrew yourself, อย่าขี้อาย, which I don’t think has ever been a problem with you from what I have seen). I am sure we would all love to see it.

  7. BTW,

    Since the topic of defecate has been brought up, here are some other words, a little more socially acceptable than ขี้, that you can use to express this bodily function.

    ถ่าย – meaning to excrete something

    อุจจาระ – excrement or feces (can sometimes be used as a verb)

    ถ่ายอุจจาระ – to have a bowl movement. This is a phrase you would use with your doctor.

    (Note: you can also say ถ่ายปัสสาวะ, which means to urinate – a topic for another post)

    อึ – this is a word like “cacca” and “poo” which is used with children and babies. My wife and I sometimes use it as an endearment (older people tend to talk about this activity more than they should) since it brings back memories of when our boys were little.

    But, just like we would in English, we usually eschew the bodily function word in social settings and go with the euphemism: “going to the bathroom” – เข้าห้องน้ำ.

  8. Thanks Hugh, I believe I’m more of a euphemism type of gal (but mostly I just wave in the direction of or nothing at all). Can one say that someone is full of อึ ? Or would they say full of ขี้ instead?

    I don’t cuss, but I do use cacca quite often. Actually, cacca is a constant with me. Before little ones can get their mouths around my name – Catherine – Cacca is used instead.

  9. As a falang that has been called kee niow on at lest one occasion I thoroughly enjoyed this post Hugh. Auntie didn’t like the fact that I wouldn’t purchase 2 shopping carts full of goods at Tesco that she picked out and all the way home I kept hearing from the back seat…”falang kee nieow” All the Thai’s I have known have always told me it meant cheap and only the odd falang has ever equated it to sticky shit…

  10. I’d like to add something on “Farang”. OK I don’t know if it’s really true, but since I was told that the word “Farang” comes from “Farang Sed” or the word for “French” or “France” in Thai. The French were the first white people to come to Thailand so I guess the word became the phrase to describe white people, which is true. Farang doesn’t mean foreigner, it means white people. We don’t use Farang to describe Asians, Indians, Africans, etc.

  11. Oh forgot to add. Another proof to show that the French were the first white people here is to look at some of the words we use to describe foreign countries. “Farang Sed” is from “Francais”, “Jeen” or China, is from “Chine”, “Yee Poon” or Japan is from “Japon” — all from French words.

  12. The ‘farang’ ‘farangset’ connection is convenient, but isn’t supported by historical evidence. The Portuguese were the first ‘farang’ to have contact with Siam (1498), more than 150 years before the French (1662). The Spanish, Dutch, and even English all arrived before the French (1598, 1608, and 1612, respectively).

    Cognates of the word ‘farang’ are found in almost every language between Persia and Cambodia, and it usually always refers to white foreigners. That’s because the most likely story for the word’s origin is that it derives from the word ‘Frank’ (as in the Frankish empire), who Middle Eastern people became well ‘acquainted’ with during the crusades. And then the word was spread in subsequent centuries throughout the East by Persian traders, who also have a long history of contact with Siam (the Bunnag family is descended from Persian traders who settled in Ayutthaya, for instance).

    Persian (aka Farsi) has the word farangi, Arabic has al-Faranj, Turkish has Frenk, Hindustani has Feringhi, Tamil has pirangi, Cambodian has barang, Thai has farang, and many more. These are all believed to be related.

  13. Thanks Rikker and Kitty

    Farang usually is used with “white” foreigners except for the fact that I have always been called a “Farang” here in Thailand even though my being half Chinese makes me a non-white in America (take a look at my picture and you decide). Things are different now but when I was a kid I always had to check the box marked “other”. I don’t worry about those things anymore though.

    BTW, when I lived in Iran, one of the few Farsi words I learned was the one for tomato “Gojeh farangi” which I believe is derived from the words for “apple” and “foreign” or “French” or “Frank” even though the tomato is from South America.

  14. Opps!

    I just found out that “Gojeh” in Farsi means plum.

  15. Could well be that plum is called ‘gojeh farangi’ because it was introduced by Westerners, and so associated with them. That’s the case in Thai, where crops like guava and potato (native to South America) were introduced to the area by the Portuguese, or perhaps in some cases the Spanish.

  16. Parsley = ผักชีฝรั่ง, ผักชี alone is cilantro, so parsley is “foreign cilantro”

  17. Here is some Thai-food-word trivia (Pikun, my wife, is out of the house and my honey-do list is empty for once, so I have nothing else to do).

    The Thai word for tomato is มะเขือเทศ. The มะเขือ part means egg plant (in the belladonna or nightshade family as is the tomato) and the เทศ part means “foreign”. So มะเขือเทศ is foreign egg plant, or foreign nightshade.

    And I am sure tomatoes were introduced by Europeans since they brought tomatoes back from the Americas. They may also have brought back the quintessential Thai food, chilies.

    The Thai chili or พริกขี้หนู (aka bird’s eye chili) may also be from South America (there are some disagreements) which is maybe the reason why black pepper (which does come from SE Asia) is called พริกไทย or “Thai pepper” to distinguish its origins.

    Pikun just came home so that’s it for now.

  18. From what I’ve read, it’s apparently the case that chilies (genus Capsicum) are native to the Americas, and were spread around the world beginning 500+ years ago.

    Since then they have proven so popular that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of new cultivars, just as Florida oranges is a cultivar created in Florida, even though the genus Citrus is believed to have originated in Southeast Asia.

    So I imagine that พริกขี้หนู and many other cultivars are local to the Thailand/Southeast Asia region, even if the parent species were initially introduced via foreign trade.

    I think you’ve hit the nail on the head with พริกไทย. It stands to reason that prior to the introduction of Capsicum varieties, พริก simply referred to Piper nigrum, or black pepper, which is native to India and has probably been present in Southeast Asia for thousands of years.

  19. ถ่ายรูป means “take a picture.” Given one meaning for each of ถ่าย and รูป (excrete and shape), one might conclude someone had Polaroid cameras in mind. :-)

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