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Thai Language Thai Culture: So Many Excuses

Thai Language

So Many Excuses…

The English phrase “excuse me” has lots of uses, from asking to leave the dinner table, to apologizing for knocking someone down on the street, to interrupting someone, to asking for forgiveness for a wrong doing. “Excuse me” is usually translated into Thai as ขอโทษ /kǒr-​tôht/, literally “I ask for” or “I beg for” “punishment”. But, as always seems to happen when we go to translate anything, there is more to the story.

Here are just six different examples of how the English term “excuse me” could be translated into Thai:

ขอโทษ /kǒr-​tôht/
ขออภัย /kǒr-​à~​pai/
ขอประทานโทษ /kŏr bprà-taan tôht/
ขออนุญาต /kǒr à-​nú-​yâat/
ขอตัว /kǒr-​dtua/
โทษที /tôht-sà-tee/

They all have their different uses but before we get into individual examples, let’s talk about how Thais would use the concept of “excuse me”. Why? Because sometimes it is different from how we’d say “excuse me” in English. For example, if we are at a restaurant in the West and want to attract the attention of a waiter, we might say “excuse me” and do a little wave. But if you said ขอโทษ /kǒr-​tôht/ to a wait person in Thailand you might be misunderstood.

The term for “excuse me” in Thailand is used when you have done something wrong, or you are putting a person out, or inconveniencing someone. You’re asking for punishment, right? So if you say ขอโทษ /kǒr-​tôht/ to a wait person (who are just doing their job), he/she might think you have done something wrong and are saying you are sorry for doing it. In the very least, it would confuse them.

A better way to get attention at a restaurant is to simply say น้อง /nóng/ “little sibling”, หนู /nǒo/ “little one (mouse)”, ขอเมนูหน่อย /kǒr may-​noo nòi/ “may I have the menu please?”, or ขอสั่งอาหารหน่อย ​/kǒ sàng aa-​hǎan nòi/ “may I order please?”

Anecdote alert: The best example of the correct use of “excuse me” in Thailand comes from my favorite sociologists, “The Simpsons”. In one episode a gang of Japanese Yakuzas are having a pitched battle outside the Simpsons’ house when the chief Yakuza comes crashing through the kitchen window. He gets up, brushes himself off, bows deeply to the startled Simpsons, says “For-giv-i-ness preez”, and then runs back into battle. If you ever have a question about when to use the “excuse me” concept to ask for forgiveness in Thailand, think of this Simpsons episode and you can’t go wrong.

Note: The English term “I am sorry” can sometimes mean “excuse me” like when you knock a cup of tea out of someone’s hands. The term “I am sorry” is translated into Thai as เสียใจ /sǐa-​jai/. But it is more like the “I am sorry” you say when you hear that your friend’s girlfriend just ran away with his brother. เสียใจมาก มาก /sǐa-​jai mâak mâak / is “I’m really, really sorry (that you lost your girl friend)”. You don’t say “excuse me” in this case. That is, unless you’re the guy she ran away with!

Here is how the various Thai translations for “excuse me” can be used:

ขอโทษ /kǒr-​tôht/
This is the general, all purpose term for “excuse me”. It is used in situations where you have either done something wrong (shot beer out of your nose and all over you friend after hearing a funny joke), put someone at an inconvenience (dropped your cell phone into your inlaw’s bowl of noodles), or are apologizing for a wrongdoing (you crashed into someones new SUV).

ผมชนรถ SUV ของคุณ ขอโทษมาก มาก
pŏm chon rót SUV kŏng kun kŏr tôht mâak mâak
I am very very sorry I crashed into your SUV.

ขออภัย /kǒr-​à~​pai/ or อภัย /à~​pai/
This means “forgiveness” much like the Yakuza’s “for-giv-i-ness preez”. It is a more formal (not often heard), variation on “excuse me”. You’ll often see it written on a temporary road sign apologizing for road construction.

ขออภัย กำลังก่อสร้าง
kŏr a-pai gam-lang gòr sâang
Under construction – Our apologies.

ขอประทานโทษ /kŏr bprà-taan tôht/
This is the really formal way to say “excuse me.” Using this expression doesn’t mean you are more sorry than if you used the others. It just means that the one you are apologizing to could make big problems for you, so you are hedging your bets by being super polite. A really good time to use it is when you step on the governor’s foot.

ขอประทานโทษท่านผู้ว่า
kŏr bprà-taan tôht tâan pôo wâa
Excuse me, I am really sorry Mister Governor.

ขออนุญาต /kǒr à-​nú-​yâat/
The word อนุญาต /à-​nú-​yâat/ means “permission”. You might use it if you are at someone’s house and want to use their computer to check your email (you haven’t bought an iPhone yet).

ขออนุญาตใช้คอมของคุณ
kŏr a-nú-yâat chái kom kŏng kun
Excuse me. May I use your computer?

ขอตัว /kǒr-​dtua/
This is a rather informal way of asking permission to leave (the dinner table, a meeting, an assignation).

ขอตัวต้องกลับบ้านเร็ว
kŏr dtua dtông glàp bâan reo
If you will excuse me, I have to leave early.

โทษที /tôht-sà-tee/ and sometimes /tôht-tee/
This is an informal abbreviation of the more general ขอโทษ /kǒr-​tôht/ and is usually used alone. You’d bring it into play if you stepped on a taxi driver’s foot instead of the governor’s.

โทษที
tôht-tee
Sorry.

Faux Pas…

For those who find it difficult to speak Thai because of a reluctance to make mistakes, I have to admit that I make mistakes all the time too; sometimes woozies. But making mistakes is often the best way to learn a foreign language.

Just yesterday I made a big woozy. I was at my favorite food court and went to my Duck-Noodle shop, mainly because it’s next to the best coconut milk ice cream maker in Chiang Mai. But when I arrived the ice cream guy wasn’t there anymore. As happens with so many small shops, he was just gone.

Quite sadly, I asked the Duck-Noodle guy:

คนขายไอศกรีมอยู่ไหน
kon kăai ai-sà-greem yòo năi
Where is the ice cream guy?

The Duck-Noodle guy replies:

เขาไม่อยู่
kăo mâi yòo
He’s not here.

To which I asked:

โอ้เขาเจ๊งหรือ
ôh kăo jéng rĕu
Wow, did he go out of business (bankrupt)?

That’s when the Duck-Noodle guy started stuttering and blushing and turned away from me. And then I hear my wife in the back stuttering and clearing her throat (usually the signal that I have made another of my infamous faux pas).

Quickly Pikun said:

เขาเลิกขาย ใช่มั้ย
kăo lêrk kăai · châi máai
He stopped selling, right?

And the Duck-Noodle guy, recovering, answered:

ครับ เขาเลิกขาย
kráp · kăo lêrk kăai
Right, he stopped selling.

It turns out that the word I thought meant “out of business”, “busted”, or “bankrupt”, เจ๊ง /jéng/, (hey, it’s in the dictionary), can be a very strong put-down of a person’s business acumen. It can mean that he was quite the bum, therefor stupid enough to lose his business (but it’s not what I meant to say). And that is why the Duck-Noodle guy was so startled when I ask him that question using เจ๊ง /jéng/ and why Pikun jumped in to help me save my face. I treated this experience as a lesson to be careful using dictionary definitions alone, without social context.

Later Pikun related the story to neighbors and a big laugh was had by all. Each one telling me, “no, you can’t say that.” One added “I wish I could have seen that duck-noodle guy’s face”, as she slapped her thigh, pointing at me and belly laughing. I guess it’s just another of my faux pas anecdotes that will be told again and again. But I’m used to it now as I have made so many of them!

BTW: เจ๊ง /jéng/ can be used in a joking way. For instance, after a hard night of playing poker you might say:

ผมเจ๊งหมดตัว (หมดตูด) แล้ว กลับบ้านดีกว่า
pǒm jéng-​mòt-​dtua (mòt dtòot) láew glàp bâan dee-​gwàa
I’m busted (or to be really crass – I’ve lost my ass). Better go home.

In that context เจ๊ง /jéng/ would be okay, though you might want to be careful if you are playing poker with the governor (of course).

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. The bigger gaffs make the better stories and making people belly laugh is always good karma.

Note in passing…

I am saddened to mark the passing of a good friend and mentor Professor Jimmy G. Harris (1930-2012). Jimmy Harris is a well-respected phonetician of the Thai language and much of what I know about how the sounds of Thai are made come from Jimmy’s long-time studies and research. Jimmy was quite an accomplished guy, fathering six children, serving in the Marine Corps during the Korean conflict, working in many foreign countries, being part of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) team that won the Nobel Prize in 1981 for their work with refugees, and winning a number of commendations for his work with the U.S. Peace Corps and other international organizations.

Jimmy’s love included Native American languages, sticking cameras down people’s throats to see how sounds are made, and Thailand. Just a few years ago he was in my living room in Chiang Mai showing me throat pictures he had just taken, while explaining how Thais make Glottal Stops. It was interesting after-dinner conversation (you had to be there).

Our hearts go out to lovely Hiroko, who survived the bombing of Hiroshima to live a long and eventful life with Jimmy, and to all his children. Rest in Peace Jimmy. We’ll miss you.

Hugh Leong
Retire 2 Thailand
Retire 2 Thailand: Blog
eBooks in 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.

14 Comments

  1. Great post, thank you!
    A question: ôh kăo jéng rĕu is wrong. What is the right way to say: oh, he went bankrupt?
    Maybe : ôh kăo mòt dtòot rĕu ?

  2. Hi Michael,

    It is probably best not to make any comment in this case. But if you have to say something then just you can say เขาเลิก … /kăo lêrk …/ “He’s finished (done)”. No faux pas that way. BTW, I just made a couple of more really good ones. I’ll include then in some up-coming posts.

  3. Enjoyed your article especially because I too am a master of using dictionary learned words in the wrong time and place. I thought I would add an additional “forgive me” in Thai, that I have used incorrectly and unintentionally at first, then on purpose later on cause it was funny. I read it in a Thai translation of an Aesop Fable.
    ขอขมา
    I believe its an asking for forgiveness but, specifically when some one of lower status is asking forgiveness from a person of higher status. Its useful in maintaining good marital relations. lol

  4. Joe,

    ขอขมา /kǒr-kà~mǎa/ is a good one and a new one for me. Thanks, especially for telling me the context I can use it. I’ll probably have to use it at least a few times later today.

  5. Hello Hugh, very interesting post.
    But, now, I would like to know really, in thai spoken way, how to say just “excuse me” or “excusez moi” in French, as we say all other the time, in any circumstances, just when I do a little thing or cause a very small “trouble in the force”, like cross in front of someone in a public place, between two huge packs of washing machine power, or let fall down a pen or an handkerchief, or an another small object… so little and trivial things or events for which you don’t ask for sure any punishment or beg for any salvation…
    “Excusez-moi, Hugh, pouvez-vous éclairer ma lanterne ? :)
    Thanks. Bernard

  6. Hi Bernard,

    I find that for really simple “Oops, sorry bout that” situations the last one in my list โทษที /tôht-tee/ or simply โทษ /tôht/ works fine.

    There is another short cut phrase that is similar and works for these simple situations and that is the one for “Thank you”. We all know that word in Thai as ขอบคุณครับ(ค่ะ)/kòp-​kun kráp(ka)/. A cut-down version of that, used maybe when a guard at the mall gives you a parking pass,or a waiter hands you your plate, is simply คุณครับ(ค่ะ)/​kun kráp (ka)/. These abbreviate phrases seem to work just fine in public type encounters.

    I hope this “enlightens”.

  7. Hello there Hugh,

    First time posting here, so hello everyone.

    I think another useful and common “excuse me” expression is that which we might use if there’s a few people blocking the way and we’re trying to politely get passed:

    ขอทางหน่อยครับ

    Literally: Please give-way-little-please

    Here’s a reply from one of Andrew Biggs’ columns to a Thai person exploring the problem from the opposite perspective: http://www.andrewbiggs.com/columns/column-127.htm

  8. David,

    Thanks and welcome. ขอทางหน่อยครับ is a good one. In fact I just used it the other day when I had to walk between a group of smiling young people and their photographer. And Andrew Biggs always gives good advice although I don’t think I have ever said “Make way, please.” It is more like a command than “Excuse me”. And he says that “Excuse me” is the one he prefers anyway.

  9. OK Hugh,
    So I will stick with โทษที and คุณครับ.
    Thanks again for regularly posting on this site (and others on your own pages that I visit time to time).

  10. There are way too many “fox-paws” we as foreigners run into using an English to Thai dictionary. Rarely do those versions show usage, example sentences, or “implied meanings”. That’s one reason I gave mine away to a Thai (who’s probably using it as a door stop).

    The second you can read Thai (even marginally) I’d get a good Thai to English dictionary. I’ve got the Domnern Sathienpong Thai-English one. I found it far better suited to my needs. This dictionary provides example sentences, related phrases, compound words using the base word, etc. All the meanings of the words are in English, just the word you’re lookin’ up and the examples are in Thai. Also the hardbound version comes with a free c/d so you can use it on your p/c.

    As far as the ways to say “sorry”; I stopped being “all too caught up about unintentional events” a long time ago. Sometimes it seems to me that we as foreigners are “apologists to the n-th degree” about the slightest thing we do here. The only thing I ever say is โทษที. Then again I don’t apologize in English to people all that much either, so go figure.

    The phrase โทษที is so colloquial and used so heavily in today’s society that it conveys just the right amount of neutrality (neither too sorry for something, nor not sorry enough). It’s about the best “catch all” way to say “sorry” to Thais for unintended things, like stompin’ on peoples toes, bumpin’ into them, etc. Sometimes on a rare occasion if I’m feeling magnanimous I’ll use ไม่ตั้งใจ as in “I didn’t do that intentionally”. Thais seem okay with that too.

    The ขอทางหน่อย phrase is useful IF you can get the Thais to actually hear what you’re sayin’. These people seem to have an incredible amount of “selective deafness” when it comes to foreigners and even other Thais sayin’ “Let me get past you.” Often when I hafta re-position myself on the BTS or MRT to get off at the next stop I’ll lightly push against people saying โทษที, จะลงจากรถสถานีถัดไป (Sorry, getting off at the next station), again Thais seem to take this at face value.

    While off topic; another useful phrase which can be used on the BTS, MRT or even a bus when someone is hoggin’ two seats is the curt, short; เถิบซิ. (เถิบ is the shortened version of กระเถิบ). It means “scoot over some” and the ซิ on the end means it’s most definitely not a polite request. I’ve never had a Thai not move some when I’ve said that to them.

    Still interesting post, good topic Hugh, always an enjoyable read; even if it contained a little too much “low frequency” vocab for me personally. Keep up the good work. .

  11. Todd,

    I have 7 dictionaries at home and I use 3 online dictionaries. I would never give even one of them away. The one I use most is the PC version of the Three Way Thai-English English-Thai Dictionary, Paiboon Publishing and Word in Hand Inc. It is right on my computer so it is very convenient. They now have iPhone and Android versions. (They also have a hard copy version which is really good for my eyes as the print is nice and large (unlike most other Thai-English dictionaries).

    The hard copy book I think has the most vocab (never looked up a word that it didn’t have) is the New Standard Thai-English Dictionary. They have a small pocket sized version too which is pretty good. You’ll need to read Thai for it to help, no transcriptions.

    The one that has the most examples of usage is the New Model Thai-English Dictionary by the well known So Sethaputra (pronounced Set-a-boot). Mine is 36 years old and well worn and I am sure there is a newer edition.

    Both of the hard copy ones mentioned also have English-Thai versions. The So-Setaputra is really nice and clearly written. Just 5 minutes ago I use it to look up the word “crane” (the bird) นกกระเรียน /nók-​grà~​rian/ because in walking through the Chiang Mai University research fields this morning we spotted a crowned crane, a bird from Africa and the Sahara. I believe it must have escaped from the zoo or maybe the Night safari here. Will follow that up by contacting them – using the new word I just looked up.

  12. BTW, I knew it was a crowned crane because I have been a bird watcher for years. If you are interested, here is what they look like sdzsafaripark.org/parkwildlife/crowned_crane.html. You’ll see why I was so pumped to see one here in Thailand.

  13. Khun Hugh, when using ขอขมา (referred to by Khun Joe), one would normally use ขออโหสิกรรม as well [it has a religious (Buddhist) slant] (you will find that they are both used quite liberally in Thai soap operas especially period dramas). At the extreme end of the spectrum, an individual who is convicted of a criminal offence in Thailand may try to ขออภัยโทษ (petition the King of Thailand for a Royal Pardon).

  14. David,

    Thanks. Next time I need to ask for a royal pardon I am going to have to remember that one.

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