July 20, 2008

A Thai eggcorn: อุ้งมือ - อุ้มมือ

I've been fascinated with eggcorns ever since I first heard about them a couple years ago. For starters, here's the Wikipedia definition:

An eggcorn is "an idiosyncratic substitution of a word or phrase for a word or words that sound similar or identical in the speaker's dialect."

These linguistic nuggets get their name from one example of this phenomenon: A fair number of people think the word acorn is actually eggcorn. So the word "eggcorn" is an example of a linguistic eggcorn. These are listener's errors--mistakes we make when we hear words but never (or rarely) see them written. Our mind analyzes them in a new way that make sense to us, but isn't strictly correct.

Usually there's a semantic connection, which is why it makes sense to us (acorns are vaguely egg-shaped, after all, so it's an understandable leap to make).

There are plenty of these in English: "all intents and purposes" becomes "all intensive purposes", "duct tape" is often called "duck tape" (there's even a Duck Tape brand of duct tape as a result).

Well, today I finally discovered a real live Thai eggcorn, and it was
my mistake, to boot. I love discovering this stuff. I just don't know why I never realized it before.

Thai has the phrase อุ้งมือ, referring to the area formed by the cupped palm of the hand. If I found a tiny frog, say, and held it in my cupped hand, it's in my อุ้งมือ. I know this term and use it. And yet, somehow, I have been mistakenly using the phrase อุ้มพระหัตถ์. That's my eggcorn.

You see, I go to church at a Thai congregation, teach Sunday School in Thai, the whole nine yards. So I talk about religion in Thai a fair amount, and this involves knowing my share of ราชาศัพท์ (royal vocabulary), for use in speaking about kings or deities. The real phrase is อุ้งพระหัตถ์ (notice that's อุ้ง, not อุ้ม). Of course, พระหัตถ์ is simply the ราชาศัพท์ word for hand. อุ้งมือ and อุ้งพระหัตถ์ mean the same thing. One would use the phrase อุ้งพระหัตถ์ to say something like "it's in God's hands"--เรื่องนี้อยู่ในอุ้งพระหัตถ์ของพระผู้เป็นเจ้าแล้ว.

Today I found myself typing the phrase, and as soon as I typed it, I realized the mistake I've been making. Something about seeing it written down.

There's also a phonetic reason for why อุ้ง becomes อุ้ม. The word อุ้ง ends in the nasal sound
[ŋ] or 'ng', a velar sound, and พระ begins with the sound [], a labial sound. When speaking quickly, you're already closing your lips to make the พ [pʰ] sound by the time you've even gotten the ง [ŋ] sound out. That leads to [ŋ] becoming [m], through the phonological process known as assimilation (the specific variety of assimilation here is labialization). This means one sound in a word becomes more like another nearby sound. That's why so many people pronounce sandwich as samwich--the [d] is elided, and the [n] is influenced by the [w] immediately following it, causing it to change to [m]. Basic phonetics. Maybe that sounds like mumbo jumbo to you, but it's true. I checked.

So I was changing อุ้ง to อุ้ม without really realizing it. And the semantic connection here is that อุ้ม means to hold or carry, as you do with a young child, so in my subconscious mind it kind of made sense, since we use our hands to carry things.

Interestingly, the same thing happens with อุ้งมือ. Because the sound immediately following ง is ม [m], it's also likely to assimilate to [m].

It turns out I'm not the only person who uses this Thai eggcorn. I Googled both "อุ้มมือ" and "อุ้มพระหัตถ์" in addition to the proper spellings. Here are the counts:

"อุ้งมือ" =
93,900 hits
"อุ้มมือ" = 4,660 hits

"อุ้งพระหัตถ์" = 717 hits
"อุ้มพระหัตถ์" = 36 hits

So while not particularly widespread, this is still a fairly common mistake to make. For all I know, I picked it up from someone else subconsciously. Obviously อุ้ง/อุ้มพระหัตถ์ is much less common than อุ้ง/อุ้มมือ, but I find it interesting that the ratio between the proper and eggcorn form is nearly identical in the two pairs--almost exactly 5%. If this is a representative sample (and I can't say that it is or isn't), as many as 1 in 20 Thais makes this mistake.

I think it's so cool to learn stuff like this.

See the Eggcorn Database for many, many more examples of eggcorns from English.


  1. Besides general phrase "the palm of one's hand" or ฝ่ามือ in Thai, it is interesting that the English language's specific term to describe a specific position of the palm of one's hand is "the flat of one's hand" while the Thai language has "อุ้งมือ" or the palm of a cupped hand. I cannot find a satisfactory and precise translation of this, perhaps "ฝ่ามือที่แบ," although awkward to say, might do, otherwise one can simply translate it as ฝ่ามือ. Does the English translation of อุ้งมือ as "the palm of a cupped hand" sounds a little awkward in English?

  2. After I read your post, I saw one of these in the wild, but now I forget what the word was! It's the BMW ad that is currently on the Baiyoke Tower. I forget what the ad said (I'll follow up if I happen to see it again); but I remember it made a lot more sense when read with a Thai accent.

    So if you're in visual range of Baiyoke before I post again, see if you catch it!

  3. Hmm.. "the palm of a cupped hand" sounds awkward, probably as much as ฝ่ามือที่แบ does to you.

    In actual context, how about translating อุ้งมือ to "[subject]'s cupped hand"? For example, "The diminutive frog sat contentedly in his cupped hand."

    I think it captures the meaning pretty well. True, we do have the expression "in the palm of X's hand", but it's more metaphorical than physical.

    Except for this idiom, it seems strange to me to say "in" the palm--why so specific, instead of just saying "in his hand".

    Speaking of which, how would you translate "I've got you in the palm of my hand" (meaning, "you have come under my power and I can do as I please with you")? Is there any way to preserve the hand metaphor? Would you use อุ้งมือ?

    Oh, and Jason, I've consistently forgotten to look at Baiyoke Tower, even though I'm within visual range of it at some point of nearly every day. Must not forget... must not forget...

  4. I remember the BMW ad "Torque of the Town". Did you mean that?