March 23, 2008

Same same, but different

Sometimes, through some twist of semantic fate, a word can acquire two senses with opposite meanings. Like 'sanction', which can mean to approve or condemn. Or 'fine', meaning merely acceptable or exceptionally good. There's a word for these. They're called contronyms, or alternately auto-antonyms.

A couple of weeks ago, there was a brief discussion on ThailandQA about the auto-antonymy of the Thai word รื้อ, which can mean either to tear down, as in รื้อตึก 'raze a building', or to bring up, as in รื้อเรื่องเก่า 'revive old matters'.

Another auto-antonym occurred to me recently: ป้องกัน. RID defines it thusly (my translation):

ก. กั้นไว้เพื่อต้านทานหรือคุ้มครอง.
/pɔŋ kan/
v. to block, in order to oppose or protect.

So when you ป้องกัน something, you are either opposing it or protecting it. Quite different meanings. You can ป้องกันโรค 'protect against disease', or you can ป้องกันตัว 'protect yourself'. Here's a real life example of what can happen with careless translation of what I suspect was the word ป้องกัน in the source material. From a press release of the Public Relations Department:

Deputy Secretary-General of the Office of the Narcotics Control Board (ONCB) Pittaya Jinawat revealed points made in a tactical meeting with computer game related businesses focused on protecting and guarding against the pervasion of narcotics and also game addiction.


Game developers have affirmed that they are ready to produce more positive games that are age appropriate but also evoke family participation, which they believe will be the best way to safeguard deviant behavior. [Emphasis added]

I don't have the original Thai, so it's only a guess that the original word is ป้องกัน. But clearly they meant 'safeguard against deviant behavior'. What a difference a word makes.

Thinking more about it, there are other words that are sort of like auto-antonyms, but not exactly. For example, เหม็น. This word most commonly means 'to have an objectionable smell', as in ตัวคุณเหม็นบุหรี่ไปหมด 'you reek of cigarettes'; but it can also mean 'to find a smell objectionable', as in ขออนุญาตสูบบุหรี่ คุณเหม็นรึเปล่า 'Mind if I smoke? Does (the smell) bother you?'

It works similarly for หนัก, 'heavy/to find heavy': กล่องนี้หนักมาก 'this box is really heavy', vs. ยกไปเท่านี้ก่อน กลัวคุณจะหนัก 'that's enough to carry, I don't want it to be too heavy for you.'

There's something different going on with เหม็น and หนัก than with ป้องกัน, but I haven't thought of (or come across) a good way to classify it. Any ideas?


  1. ป้องกัน ก. กั้นไว้เพื่อต้านทานหรือคุ้มครอง.
    /pɔŋ kan/ v. to block, in order to oppose or protect.

    I suspect that the meaning of the word ป้องกัน encompasses two notions: to keep 1. something bad from happening 2. to someone. Sometimes the first element is merely implied, such that the term ป้องกัน means "to protect"; at other times, the second element is implied such that ป้องกัน means to prevent.

  2. continued:

    I believe the problem lies with the English dichotomy in usage, not in the Thai.

    In fact the combined term is a compound word:

    ป้อง [V] cover up; obstruct; screen; shade; shield; protect
    กัน [V] keep out; prevent; set aside; resist; obstruct

    The first word refer to the person being shielded; the second refers to the harm that can be done. (Is this a step too far?)

  3. I think you're right the first comment. As for the second comment, I don't see it as a 'problem' per se, just an interesting quirk of the language that translators should be aware of.

    And I think your syllable-by-syllable analysis makes sense. The compound encompasses both ideas, because each half on its own gives one of the two possible meanings of the compound.

  4. hey rikker,
    it's my first post over here, but i had mentioned the รื้อ word over at
    I just stumbled across a new one and I though I'd add it to the comments:

    สยบ [V] accept, See also: recognize; embrace, Syn. ซบลง, ฟุบลง, คร้าม, Example: นิสิตนักศึกษาพากันสยบอยู่แทบเท้าของท่าน และยกย่องท่านว่าเป็นศาสตราจารย์ชั้นยอดเยี่ยมคนหนึ่ง, Thai definition: ยอมให้

    สยบ [V] defeat, See also: beat; conquer; overcome, Example: ท่านผู้บังคับบัญชาสามารถสยบการเคลื่อนไหวของฝ่ายทหารให้ราบคาบลงได้, Thai definition: ทำให้พ่ายแพ้

    I thought this was strange.

  5. Regarding the verb กัน [V] keep out; prevent; set aside; resist; obstruct - I once heard it used in the context of "go save us two seats."

    Is that a common usage?


  6. That's a new one to me, but it makes good enough sense. Makes me think of something like, "go rope off a couple of seats for us."

    Google turns up at some hits for the phrase กันที่นั่ง (with false positives, too), as in:

    "They blocked off seats for pregnant women."

  7. Your comment about เหม็น made me think of something I hear my girlfriend ask sometimes. She will ask of her aunt while eating dinner "คุณอาอร่อยไหมค่ะ" and she is clearly asking if her aunt is finding the food to be tasty, rather than asking her aunt if she tastes nice. This seems to be a similar construction to the ones you mentioned in your post.

  8. Yes, looks just like เหม็น and หนัก. It would certainly be a strange situation if it were meant any other way. :P