Westerners may turn up their noses at the mention of bodily functions but that’s not the case in the Kingdom where faecal phrases are a key part of the language
With five minutes to go before the meeting, I need to make sure Natthapon has all the required documents. But Natthapon is nowhere to be found. A cigarette break no doubt.
“Where’s Khun Natthapon?” I ask his co-worker, an attractive young lady by the name of Ploy.
Ploy looks up from her desk and points stage left.
“He gone to sh*t in the toilet,” she announces blank-faced, then returns to whatever is occupying her attention on the PC screen.
That simple sentence radically alters the mood of the ensuing meeting, at least from my perspective.
I’m at a government office to attend a meeting to discuss the budget for an upcoming contract.
Normally I wouldn’t give the sartorially challenged Natthapon a second glance but try as I might, every time the focus of the meeting shifts to Natthapon, I cannot help but form a mental picture of his pre-meeting ablutions, an image so violently conjured up by Ploy just moments before.
I am bilingual and no, that’s not some secret code for any shenanigans I may get up to in my private life.
There are people out there who are trilingual, even quad- and quintlingual, with the occasional sexlingual, and if that isn’t a real word then it should be.
The point is, I am aware of my linguistic boundaries and in an effort not to spread myself too thin I have spent an inordinate amount of time honing my Thai language skills to the detriment of every other language in the world, not to mention valuable drinking time.
Thus I do get intrigued by the little things that create chasms between the two languages of Thai and English when really they shouldn’t. Like the word “sh*t”.
I am trying neither to be flippant nor titillating. But how is it that educated, earnest, conservative and overly systematic Ploy is able to comfortably – not to mention graphically – inform me of the movements of Khun Natthapon’s bowels while paying scant attention to the movements of the rest of the man’s body?
I am aware that some of my handful of regular readers are thinking hmm, he attacked the topic of snot two weeks ago, and now he is launching into a tirade against faeces. What’s with Andrew and his fixation with bodily functions?
I think that is an unfair accusation. I don’t think I am any more or less fixated with bodily functions than the average Australian, though I do promise to leave the topic alone after today.
It’s just that Ploy’s comment is one of those brief glimpses, not behind Tawatchai’s cubicle door, but at a striking difference between Thai and English.
There are two motives at play here.
First, Thais are far more relaxed talking about bodily functions than we Westerners are.
Second, and more importantly, it is all about the language.
In Thai, the word for “faeces” or “bowel movement” or any other formal word for that bodily function is ood-jara.
It is a word straight out of the refrigerator; cold and clinical, polite and proper. You won’t hear it bandied about that much, unless you are conversing with a doctor or are friends with a khunying who is into scatology. Tell me I didn’t write that just then.
Then there is the cute word Eu, spoken very short and sharply, that is close to the English word “poo”. It’s the kind of word you use when talking to kids, or grown-ups working for 300 baht per day.
That leaves khee, the popular and universally-adored Thai word that can only be translated as “sh*t”.
That is an English word still considered fairly base for a lofty publication like Sunday Brunch, but the same can’t be said for its Thai translation.
In English we attach all sorts of nasty negative connotations to the word. If you can’t tell the truth to save your life, you are full of it. You talk it when you are gabbling on about nonsense. Something of no value is a crock of it, and it’s all over your face when you are inebriated.
I can’t think of an example where we use the word in a positive way. Perhaps somewhere in a ghetto in America, crack whores compliment each other another with something like “You da sh*t, man!” but surely we can isolate such usage to the most depraved corners of society, ie, ghettos and Jay-Z albums.
Let’s leave English and pop over to the Thai language, where the sun really does shine on the word khee much more.
No, it isn’t used in a positive light. But it is used in compound words to create adjectives to explain all sorts of less appealing things and behaviour.
The Thai word for “stingy” is khee neo, for example. This is a combination of “sh*t” and “sticky”, as in your excrement sticks to everything, not unlike the way your money sticks to your pocket.
This explains why your new Thai friend may make a face and call you “sticky sh*t” in English when you refuse to buy her a new iPhone, or replace that terminally ill buffalo back on the farm in Si Sa Ket.
A garrulous person is khee khui translated as “chatty bowel movements”. A hypochondriac is “diseased faeces”. An absent-minded person has “forgetful feces”. A person lacking in courage is “scared sh*t” (which slots in nicely with English’s “sh*t-scared”).
In fact my official Government Thai Language dictionary lists more than 100 of these compound words.
Some of them are hilarious. An ex con is “prison sh*t” in Thai. The sleep in your eye is “eye sh*t”, while wax is “bee sh*t.” When Natthapon goes out for his cigarette break, he flicks “cigarette sh*t”, not ash, into the ashtray.
And we haven’t even started on the proverbs and sayings that use the word.
“Where there’s smoke, there’s fire” may be a popular English saying, but the Thai equivalent is far more blunt: “If there’s no garbage lying around, the dog won’t sh*t on it.”
This is why I love the Thai language so much. How expressive and quirky is this?
Through popular and constant use this word in the Thai language has been sterilised. What I mean is, I don’t think of poo every time I call somebody khee neo, just like you don’t think of breaking a fast every morning you eat breakfast.
With the Thai language so abundant in khee it is hardly surprising then that Ploy can roll that sentence off her tongue the same way she would order her dinner at a roadside stall.
She is merely translating what she would normally say in Thai. Added to that is the relaxed attitude Thais have towards their bodily functions, way more so than we prudish Australians.
And something else.
Ploy and Natthapon have never gotten along. I have noticed that in the short time I have been working with them on this contract. They tolerate each other but Ploy is tired of his constant disappearing acts.
Perhaps if they were friends, she would have avoided the khee and gone for something a little more ood-jara.
I have no idea. I am too busy with more pressing and important tasks – finalising this new contract, and educating Ploy on the difference in usage between “gone” and “went”.
After all I am Australian. I am more comfortable chatting about a verb’s function than a bodily one any day.