January 30, 2008

Movie review: รักแห่งสยาม (The Love of Siam)

I meant to write about the movie รักแห่งสยาม (The Love of Siam), directed by Chukiat 'Matthew' Sakveerakul, (มะเดี่ยว ชูเกียรติ ศักดิ์วีรกูล) back in December when I saw it. I hope the window of interest (and relevance) hasn't entirely passed. The hit song from the soundtrack is still getting endless radio airtime, but the mini-controversy surrounding the film appears to have blown over. I say "mini" because it didn't get much attention in the mass media, compared to things like the then-impending election. After its release there was some backlash against this movie. While the content of the movie itself was part of the issue, more to the point, the outcry was about how the film's trailer and other advertisements intentionally misrepresented that content.

My wife and I enjoy seeing movies in the theater fairly regularly (at least, we used to back in those heady pre-parenthood days), so we saw the trailer for รักแห่งสยาม before at least two movies prior to its release. We both thought it looked good, and definitely much better than most Thai movie fare. My wife shares my dim view of Thai cinema. It seems like 99 out of every 100 Thai films these days is some combination of three themes: slapstick, cross-dressers, and ghosts. Many combine all three. Now, those themes don't automatically disqualify them, but when I see trailers for movies like โปงลางสะดิ้ง or หอแต๋วแตก, I tend to shake my head, enjoy a guilty chuckle or two, and know that I've already seen all the funny bits and would only be punishing my brain cells by watching the whole thing. Most films outside of the above categories are (pseudo-)historical epics and high-action, low-plot popcorn flicks.

Films in Thailand tend to have a short shelf life. This is starting to change for some newer films, but if a movie is more than a year old, it may be difficult to find in stores. If it was made in the 20th century, forget about it.* So it feels like Thai film culture is caught in a vicious cycle whereby the movie going public is tired of seeing the same themes rehashed again and again, and at the same time due to the scarcity of older films, that's all they're aware even exists. It's like the cultural memory for Thai cinema is so short that movies are forgotten almost while it's still in theaters.

Personally, I prefer well-written drama and smart comedy, exceptions to the rule in the world of Thai cinema. And these exceptions tend to come from just a handful of directors, so I keep a close eye on those few. Folks like เป็นเอก รัตนเรือง (
Pen-Ek Ratanaruang) and วิศิษฐ์ ศาสนเที่ยง (Wisit Sasanatieng). So when I saw the trailer for รักแห่งสยาม, I was looking forward to it. It looked like a good coming of age story, perhaps like the excellent แฟนฉัน (Fan Chan), only with teenagers.

Take a look for yourself and see if that isn't the impression you get:

As it turns out, the movie focuses around the budding romantic relationship between the two teenage male leads, มิว "Mew" (วิชญ์วิสิฐ หิรัญวงษ์กุล) and โต้ง "Tong"
(มาริโอ้ เมาเร่อ/Mario Maurer). That's the heart of the story. And even after seeing the film, it's only the very last shot, where the two are walking with arms over each other's shoulders in slow motion, that actually hints toward the film's central theme. And a very, very subtle hint at that.

I confess I was surprised by the fuss this caused. People complained that the trailer was dishonest, and that parents were taking young children to this film, unaware of the gay content. Here I was thinking Thailand was very accepting of homosexuality.
Maybe it's because I'm from a conservative region of the U.S., or more probably because I'm from a small town, but gay culture just seems so visible in Bangkok, in a way that it isn't where I grew up. Turns out it's not that simple. After witnessing this reaction, I can only conclude that for a good portion of Thais, it's okay if the comic relief in the movie is gay, if the character is a flamboyant gay caricature (the stereotypical กะเทย), but folks are less comfortable with such seemingly normal characters being gay. And especially teenagers! Shocking!

After seeing the film, I wondered how Thais felt about this movie. From what I read on internet message boards, plenty of people had no problem with the film, but everyone seemed to be in agreement that the advertising was misleading. This upset the film's fans because the film shouldn't hide what it is, and it upset the film's detractors for tricking people into seeing a film that might offend them. The director said in one interview that he made the trailer what it was to make the movie more marketable. Okay, so there's a direct admission that the trailer was intentionally misleading.

You know how people complain that trailers for comedies tend to show you all of the funny scenes, giving the impression that the whole film is funnier than it actually is? Well, that's the main tactic of this trailer. The two female co-stars have maybe ten minutes of screen time between them, and you see pretty much every scene they're in in the trailer. They are extremely insignificant characters, both of them. The other important storyline is about โต้ง's family--how his older teenage sister suddenly disappears on a trip with friends to Chiang Mai, and how his parents cope with it.

Let me interrupt myself for a second to say that this film is not explicit. There is one (pointlessly drawn out) kissing scene between the two boys that sets in motion the final act of the film, where things fall apart. Mostly, though, it's a lot of angstful longing and inner conflict, puppy dog eyes and shy smiles. But the film is still explicit in the sense that there's no question that the theme is about these boys discovering their homosexuality, despite how innocent it is.

It wasn't only the movie trailer that failed to mention the gay themes. This movie was hugely promoted on the radio station I often listen to on the way to work (
Greenwave 106.5), for example, and the DJs were talking nonstop about this movie, and how it's a film about "all kinds of love". After seeing the film, it's clear they were avoiding mentioning the gay love story.

Uproar aside, by the director's own admission the motivation for the misleading press was marketability. But behind that, it seems like it's the director's sincere desire to gain increased acceptance of homosexuality through positive portrayal of gays as normal people, and not caricatures. This is a noble enough cause. I don't think any cultural group deserves to be exploited for laughs or otherwise. I think this was a bad tactic, though, not just because it's deceptive, but it also implies that the film can't stand on its own merits.

Now that รักแห่งสยาม has "come out" as a gay-themed film, though, it has to stand on its own merits if it is to get the mainstream acceptance its director seeks. For another example of not doing that, check out the film's IMDb rating: 91 votes for an average of 9.3 out of 10. Not even The Godfather or Star Wars have an average that high. This is the "friends and family" effect common with lesser-known films on IMDb: you have everyone you know to give the movie a 10 in hopes of enticing more people to see it.

So how do I think it stacks up? After all I've written here, I still haven't made it clear how I feel about the film as a film. So here's what I think: this movie has a lot of good things going for it. I like the atmosphere of the film. But everything good this movie has going for it is diminished by the fact that it's way too long. I didn't know going into it that the movie weighs in at a whopping 2 hours, 34 minutes. This story could have--should have--been told in 90 minutes. During the first half hour or so, I felt like the story was rushed. The family of โต้ง is never shown making any effort to locate their lost daughter, for example. They get a phone call from the police that she's missing and immediately start grieving. At that point, I assumed it was because they needed to move the story along. But the longer the movie got, the more this started to bother me. Scene after sluggish, lingering scene screamed for editing.

I don't have anything against long movies in general. I've watched the entire Godfather trilogy back-to-back. That's 9 hours. Ditto for the Lord of the Rings trilogy (extended versions, no less). That's like 13 hours. Maybe it was because I didn't expect it to be so long, but this movie felt bloated. Like it was produced from the first draft of the script. I didn't think to watch the credits so closely in the theater, and it's not listed on IMDb, but I have a strong suspicion that Chukiat edited the film himself.
If he was involved in the editing, I feel for him. That's like asking yourself to decide which limbs your child needs most. Few are up to the task.

Now get this: this announcement for a screening of the director's cut says that the full version is four (four!) hours. It's no wonder: if you write a four-hour script for a coming-of-age drama, you're probably getting off on the wrong foot.

So that's it. That's my big beef. This movie is better than most Thai movies in a lot of ways. It's clearly a passion project for the director, but that turned out to be a stumbling block when it came to writing the script. If your starting script is 400 pages, the number of people willing to see the final product quickly dwindles, regardless of the content. It means you've really got to justify all those minutes, and รักแห่งสยาม failed to do so.

Chukiat has spent most of his movie career in the horror genre.
I'll keep an eye out for his future work, but I just hope that he's got a better editor the next time around, both for the film itself and for the trailer.

[Update: The director's cut is currently playing to sold-out audiences at arthouse theaters in Bangkok. The 5-hour version of Suriyothai never had it so good.]

[Update 2: According to someone who's seen the director's cut, it's only 3 hours, not 4, and the extra half hour dramatically improves the film. This is part of what didn't sit well with me--even with 2 1/2 hours, the storytelling didn't flow. So maybe, just maybe, the longer version really does justify the film's length. I still felt like the film had too many overly drawn out scenes, though, so I wonder if that viewer isn't watching through rose-colored glasses. Hard to say.]

* Except hit-and-miss on VCD. There are two groups that I know of releasing "old" Thai films (70s and 80s) on DVD for the first time, but those aren't widely distributed yet. One is called โครงการรักหนังไทย ("Love Thai Movies Project"--slightly scandalous example cover here) and the other is called XXX Films (way to make yourselves un-Googleable, guys).

January 27, 2008

Keeping track of time: Era after era

Most folks who've spent any time in Thailand know that the Buddhist calendar is about 500 years ahead of the Gregorian calendar. 543 years, to be precise. As I've read more, though, I've come across other systems of counting the years, all dating back to some important cultural event. Since I tend to get them confused, I decided to write a roundup of all the eras used in Thai:

Buddhist era (พ.ศ., พุทธศักราช or พุทธศก): Begins 543 B.C., the year the Buddha achieved nirvana. Traditionally a lunar calendar, Rama V adopted a solar calendar in 1888 A.D. The Thai Buddhist year also traditionally began at the arrival of the zodiac Aries, between April 13-15 on the modern calendar (still used to determine Songkran Day each year). However, in 1941, Field Marshal Plaek Phibunsongkhram, then Prime Minister, decreed January 1 of that year the first day of the Buddhist year 2484. This caused the year 2483 to have only 9 months (April-December).

Christian era
or Common era (ค.ศ., คริสต์ศักราช, or คริสต์ศก): Begins 1 A.D., the year of Jesus Christ's birth according to tradition.

Muslim era
or Hijra era (ฮ.ศ. or ฮิจญ์เราะหฺศักราช): Begins in 622, the year of the Hijra, when Mohammad emigrated from Mecca to Medina. This is a lunar calendar, with around 354 days per year, making the year number advance slightly faster than solar or lunisolar calendars.

Major era
, Saka era or Shalivahana era (ม.ศ. or มหาศักราช): Begins 78 A.D., the year the Saka tribe defeated King Vikramaditya of Ujjain in northwestern India. Interestingly, sources seem to indicate that this is also the origin of the term ศักราช "era" in Thai. The word was formerly spelled ศกราช [สะกะหราด], with ศก or ศกะ referring to the Saka tribe. Thus, ศักราช literally means "Saka king", referring when the Sakas became kings of Ujjain. From there it has become a generic term for era, and nowadays the word ศก "sok" is also used in Thai to mean simply "year" (e.g. ศกนี้ "this year").

Minor era
(จ.ศ. or จุลศักราช): Begins 638 A.D. This system was formerly believed to have been a Burmese system adopted by Thais, but since the first Burmese empire of Pagan wasn't established until 849, it is now believed only to have been later adopted by the Burmese. There are a few competing theories for what exactly this date marks, but it may well be the establishment of Sri Ksetra, capital of the Vikrama dynasty of the Pyu empire.

Bangkok era
or Rattanakosin era (ร.ศ. or รัตนโกสินทรศก): Begins 1781 A.D., the year of the establishment of กรุงเทพฯ/
Bangkok as the capital of เมืองไทย/Siam (Rattanakosin is another name for Bangkok, clipped from the city's extremely long ceremonial name). Construction of the city was finished the next year in 1782, which is the year from which anniversary celebrations of Bangkok are sometimes calculated. Rama V introduced this system as the first solar calendar in 1888.

In researching this post I even learned about a couple of very rare systems I'd never heard about (I've transcribed the names because I can't find standard English equivalents):

Kali yuga sakarat (กลียุคศักราช): Begins 3101 B.C., which is calculated to be the beginning of the current kali yuga ("age of vice"), according to the traditional Hindu four-stage yuga system.

Anchana sakarat (อัญชนะศักราช): Begins 690 B.C., established by King Anchana. I can't really find any more information about who this guy is.

So if you find someone asking you what year it is, you can tell them that this year is 5109, 2698,
2551, 2008, 1930, 1429, 1370, or 227. It all depends on who's counting.

January 25, 2008

Royal Institute to host conference on national language policy

It completely slipped my mind to post about this conference:
NEW DATE: July 4-5, 2008

The Royal Institute of Thailand, in cooperation with UNESCO-Bangkok, UNICEF-Thailand, the Southeast Asian Ministers of Education Organization (SEAMEO), the Embassy of Australia, and SIL International, invites scholars, government officials, and language practitioners from around the globe to submit abstracts for an international conference on “National Language Policy: Language Diversity for National Unity,” July 4-5, 2008, in Bangkok, Thailand. Keynote speakers will include Bernard Spolsky, Joseph LoBianco, David Bradley, and other noted language policy experts. Conference topics will include (but are not limited to):
• Case studies in language planning and language policy;
• English education in non-English speaking countries;
• Language policy and conflict resolution;
• Language policy and refugee/transnational migration situations;
• Bilingual and multilingual education policies and practice;
• Language policy and ethno-linguistic minority languages;
• Translation policies and practices on the international, national, and local levels;
• Corpus planning for national languages;
• Language policy and the UN Millennium Development Goals
• Language policy and socio-economic theory (with special emphasis on the Self-Sufficiency Economic Theory of His Majesty King Bhumibol of Thailand)

Deadline for electronic submission of abstracts: March 15, 2008
Notification of acceptance: April 15, 2008
Deadline for submission of papers for publication in proceedings: August 31, 2008

• Participant – Thai Resident Baht 2,000 /person
• Student – Thai Resident Baht 1,000 /person
• Non-Thai Resident
- before April 30, 2008 US $ 150 /person
- after April 30, 2008 US $ 175 /person
Accommodations: TBA

This was originally scheduled for February. I submitted an abstract back in December, and I have unofficial word that my talk has been accepted. Let's hope I don't get bumped by some bigger fish in the meantime. Here is my abstract, for anyone interested:

Thai in Transition, and the Thai Gigaword/Terabyte Web Corpus

The Thai language has always been in transition; the result of both external influence and internal innovation. Over the past 1,000 years, Chinese, Khmer, Mon, Sanskrit, Pali, and English have all left substantial marks on the language. Thai has changed internally as well, with new patterns of nominalization, usage of passive forms, and even types of classifiers all appearing in the last century or two. These changes are sometimes prescriptive, as in the ‘linguistic’ edicts promulgated by King Mongkut, and in the work of the Royal Institute’s word-coining committees. But they are also entirely spontaneous; created by the tongues and hands of more than 60 million Thai speakers and writers.

It is only within the past few years, however, that we are able to actively observe the transition of Thai via the Internet. We estimate that at the end of 2007, roughly 100 million Thai-language Web pages have been indexed by the major search engines (based on counts of the extremely common word ที่). A conservative estimate of 1,000 Thai characters per page implies that this Web corpus includes some 100 billion characters, or more than 25 billion words. Thus, we are already able to consult a gigaword corpus 25 times over, and can anticipate access to a terabyte corpus within a few years.

This paper discusses the Thai Web Corpus, part of the SEAlang Library’s suite of tools and lexical resources for Southeast Asian language study. We describe its design and operation, explain how it differs from other Thai corpus projects, and show how it is used to explore two new works by the Royal Institute: the Dictionary of New Words (2007), and Foreign Words that Can be Replaced with Thai Words (2006).

[Thanks to Jason for reminding me about this.]

Loanwords 2: Mouth, menu, mem

It's only been, oh, seven months since the last (and first) installment of Loanwords. Time for another look at the unique ways in which Thai speakers take words from other languages and make them their own. As before, phonetics are given in brackets when the word doesn't follow regular pronunciation rules. This time up: mouth, menu, and mem:

เมาท์ [เม้า] = to chitchat, usually implying gossip. From the English word 'mouth'. I've heard my wife use this one for a few years at least. It also made it into the Royal Institute's Dictionary of New Words (พจนานุกรมคำใหม่ เล่ม ๑) that was released last year. Note, though, that they have not followed the popular spelling, rather choosing to introduce a new spelling that matches the tone of the spoken word. Their definition says:
ก. ๑. พูดคุยกัน มักเป็นเรื่องไร้สาระ เช่น ผู้หญิงกลุ่มนั้นเอาแต่นั่งเม้าธ์กันไม่ยอมทำงาน. ๒. พูดนินทา เช่น พวกหล่อนชอบเม้าธ์ชาวบ้านไปทั่ว. [p. 123]

v. 1. chat, usually about trivial things, e.g. Those women just 'mouth' all day, they never get any work done. 2. gossip, e.g. They love to 'mouth' anyone all over the place.
I believe this is a true Thai innovation, because I've never heard 'mouth' used in any sense like this in English. It's actually, ahem, eyebrow-raising to use it in English like this.

เมนู = menu; menu item.
Nevermind that this isn't how we pronounce 'menu' in English (which would be more like เม็นยู), for starters. This seems like it should be fairly straightforward, like the menu at a restaurant, but this word has another sense in Thai: a menu item. That is, it's become a classifier for a dish of edibles. The idea of 'this is my favorite thing on the menu' can be expressed quite succinctly as นี่คือเมนูโปรดของฉันเลย (literally, 'this is my favorite menu'). If you've never heard this usage, try it at a new restaurant. Ask, มีเมนูแนะนำไหม(ครับ/คะ), and come tell me how it goes.

เม็ม = to save information in one's cell phone (usually a phone number). This is almost always followed by the word เบอร์, which comes from English 'number', and refers only to phone numbers (เบอร์โทร) and e-mail addresses (เบอร์อีเมล์). You can also use it without เบอร์, though. If someone asked you เม็มเบอร์ยัง 'Did you get (my) number yet?', you could affirm that you've completed the action by saying something like เม็มไว้แล้ว. This is usually used with phone numbers, but potentially could be used for other things like e-mail addresses, too. This is also in the New Words Dictionary:
ก. บันทึกหมายเลขโทรศัพท์ไว้ในเครื่องโทรศัพท์มือถือหรือโทรศัพท์พีซีทีเป็นต้น เพื่อให้ค้นชื่อและหมายเลขโทรศัพท์ผู้ที่ต้องการจะต่อสัญญาณโทรศัพท์ได้ทันที ทั้งยังทำให้รู้ว่าโทรศัพท์ที่ต่อสัญญาณเข้ามาเป็นของผู้ใด เช่น ได้เบอร์เลขาฯ มาแล้ว อย่าลืมเม็มเบอร์ไว้ จะได้ติดต่อได้สะดวก. [p. 123]

v. record a telephone number in a cellular telephone or PCT* telephone etc., in order to be able to instantly find the name and telephone number of the person with whom you want connect with via telephone signal, as well as to know to whom the telephone of an incoming telephone signal belongs, e.g. You've got the secretary's number, don't forget to 'mem' it, so you can contact them conveniently.
I've intentionally translated this into stilted English, because I think the original Thai sounds terribly formal and unnatural. It reads like it's been written for an audience who isn't quite sure what a "cellular telephone" is. Most unfortunate. [Update: Forgot to mention that the Royal Institute New Words Dictionary says this is from 'memorize'. This is plausible, since เม็ม is a verb and so is 'memorize', but I'd add that it could also be from 'memory'.]

If you have suggestions for the Loanwords feature, write me at the เบอร์อีเมล์ at the bottom of the page.

*For those who don't know, a PCT telephone (abbreviated from Personal Communication Telephone) is a rather rare system now that let you use a single number for both cell phone and home phone. A friendly robot answers and the caller dials 0 for home phone and 1 for cell phone, and the one number would forward to the other if there was no answer. Rather handy, but unfortunately the cell phones themselves were special models specific to the system and very aesthetically unappealing. Existing numbers are still around, as far as I know, but it never caught on widely, doubtless because you know how much Thais love their fancy, expensive cell phones that do your laundry and cure cancer and whatnot, all for the low, low price of two months' salary.

January 23, 2008

How the Thais remember months

After reading the post by thomas of Babelhut on how the Japanese remember which months have how many days, it seemed like a good idea to write a similar explanation for Thai. In Thai it's extremely simple: the number of days is encoded directly into the names of the months.

It seems like few learners realize this, or at least it takes them long time to notice. It did for me. I've never seen this mentioned in any books for learners of Thai, so please tell me if you know one that does.

One of my very first posts was about the meanings of the Thai month names. To refresh your memory, the Thai months (ordered January-December) are:

มกราคม /
กุมภาพันธ์ /kum
มีนาคม /miːnaː
เมษายน /meːsaː
พฤษภาคม /p
มิถุนายน /mit
กรกฎาคม /karakadaː
สิงหาคม /singhaː
กันยายน /kanyaː
ตุลาคม /tulaː
พฤศจิกายน /p
ธันวาคม /t

Now notice the last syllables and you'll see the key:

Months that end in คม /k
ʰom/ have 31 days.
Months that end in ยน /yon/ have 30 days.
The month that ends in พันธ์ /p
ʰan/ has 28 days.

I figure that this must be by design, but I have no information on when these month names came into use at the moment. The Indic words อาคม and อายน forming the end of the month names are synonyms meaning 'arrival', referring to the arrival of a certain zodiac sign (e.g. มีนาคม is from มีน 'fish' + อาคม 'arrival', meaning 'arrival of pisces'). The word พันธ์ as seen in the word for February means 'bind', but I'm not sure of the zodiacal significance of that word choice.

Pretty slick, though, huh?

January 22, 2008

Royal Institute's "new" website is a mess

A couple of months ago the Royal Institute launched a new look for their website, royin.go.th. Instead of the red color scheme they've been using for a year or two now, it's now green. I'm not sure if this is supposed to be significant. Overall, though, it seemed that the website was just a makeover of the old one. Same popup menus that don't work correctly in Firefox, same basic layout, same underlying structure, same content.

There's plenty left to be desired already. They're breaking some cardinal website-making rules here. For one, the website uses way to much Flash or other fancy graphics where it should be using plain text. That means you often can't search the page for what you're looking for. Also, any text in a graphic won't turn up in search engine results, either. They gave their newly updated online dictionary the unrememberable URL rirs3.royin.go.th (why not dict.royin.go.th? or rid.royin.go.th?). I'm also not exaggerating when I say that not one page on their website has a sensible address. It's all php and arguments and question marks and module numbers. Occasionally I've run into the problem where when you go to a given page from the menu, it doesn't show the updated URL for that page in the address bar, so you can't even directly link to that page. The list goes on.

Maybe I'm being
too harsh. The Royal Institute definitely deserves to be commended for embracing the internet and putting so many resources online. But they need to stop valuing style over substance and usability. If given a choice between the very simple 1990s-style website used from 2000 to 2005, and the poorly-designed, dysfunctional versions we've had since, I'd take the one that looks like an oldschool Geocities site any day. The content is great. The site is awful.

Hold on to your hats, though.
Since the launch of the most recent website, not only did it fail to fix any of the major issues of its predecessor, it's been getting worse. I noticed today that they're destroying previously existing functionality. The offender here: the search box.

Search functionality is wonderful. Electronic text and the ability to search it is literally one of the most important advances of the late 20th Century. But it's not a very good substitute for browsing.

I'm sad to have to point out that the Royal Institute has decided to remove the ability to browse some of their standard resources. Before things weren't exactly peachy--you would probably get a barebones e-text that you had to click through all the pages of. But now when you click on many of their menu options, you get a page devoid of content except for one little search box. Among the butchered resources:

Classifiers (ลักษณนาม)
Royal vocabulary (ราชาศัพท์)
Province and district names (ชื่อจังหวัด เขต และอำเภอ)
Foreign country and capital city names (ชื่อประเทศ/เมืองหลวง)
Bodies of water (ชื่อทะเล)
Elements (ชื่อธาตุ)

On top of that, the search doesn't even work right now. This is typical, though frustrating, of the Royal Institute's website development. They make some change in the site that breaks existing links and features, and then eventually make them work, instead of launching a fully tested and fully functional site. But even if it were functional, this is a bad move on the part of the Royal Institute. I can only hope the browsing is a "broken" feature they are planning to eventually reinstate, but it doesn't look like it.

I feel for their web guy. I'm pretty sure it's a one man operation, and that he's making less money than he would in the private sector. I'm also quite sure that all of the people he has to impress with his website design don't use the internet, or at least not on a daily basis (or for more than e-mail). Let alone understand issues like browser compatibility or search engine optimization.

In other news, I'm going to the Royal Institute with my boss today to talk about how CRCL might be able assist the causes of the Royal Institute. From what he told me of his conversation with someone from the Institute, they have lots of complaints about the new dictionary. So I've prepared a polite list of the main problems with the new RID99 online, based on my previous posts.

At least I have high hopes to go along with my high expectations.

January 17, 2008

Know Your Dictionary: Word Senses in RID99

[Note: See also in this series introduction, sorting, orthography, symbols, and pronunciation guides. Forthcoming: etymology and list of abbreviations.]

For this installment of Know Your Dictionary we have the section called
simply "ความหมาย" in the original introduction to Royal Institute Dictionary 1999 (พจนานุกรม ฉบับราชบัณฑิตยสถาน พ.ศ. ๒๕๔๒). Now, ความหมาย means "meaning(s)". However, I decided to go with the word "sense" because it's commonly used in a dictionary context to refer to distinct meanings of an entry. Also, sometimes RID99's use of sense or meaning (ความหมาย) vs. definition (บทนิยาม) doesn't perfectly match how I would use them in English. As in other installments, I have tried to translate closely and consistently, but I may have made a few concessions for style. (You can read the original Thai here.)

Part 5:
Word senses
1. In defining words with many senses, definitions that are constantly used and are thought to have prominent meanings are normally ordered first. But there are some exceptions where it is intended to show the history of senses, in which case the sense that is thought to be the original sense might be first, followed by the origin, opposites, or collocates (if there are any). Effort has been made to give specific examples for uncommon words.

2. For words with numerous senses that include plant or animal names, definitions of plants and animal names are separated from other definitions, by elevating that word as a separate headword, see for example แก้ว.

3. Abbreviations in parentheses tell the characteristics of a word used in a specific context, e.g. (โบ) (แบบ) (กฎ). If it comes before the part of speech, that means that every definition is used on only in the context specified in parentheses, e.g. เข้า ๒ (โบ) น. ข้าว; ขวบปี. If it comes after the part of speech, only the definitions before the semicolon are used in the context specified in parentheses, e.g. ข้าราชการ น. (โบ) คนที่ทำราชการ ตามทำเนียบ; ผู้ปฏิบัติราชการในส่วนราชการ;...

4. Words that are the plant and animal names follow these definition rules:
A. Plants from different families with the same name are defined under the same headword, but are differentiated by a number in parentheses, e.g. กระโดงแดง น. (๑) ชื่อไม้ต้นขนาดใหญ่... (๒) ชื่อไม้ต้นขนาดกลาง ...

B. Animals with the same name that are the same type of animal, but are from different species or families, are defined under the same headword, but separated by a number in parentheses, e.g. กด ๒ น. (๑) ชื่อปลาไม่มีเกล็ด ... (๒) ชื่อปลาน้ำจืดบางชนิด ...

C. Animals with the same name but are a different type of animal are not defined under the same headword, but are given different headwords by type along with separate definitions. See for example แก้ว and จะละเม็ด.

5. Inclusion of sub-entries of plant and animal names follows these rules:
A. Sub-entries of plants or animals are of the same family as the headword, e.g. กระโดน has the subhead กระโดนดิน, which is a plant of the same family, or, หมอ ๓ has the subhead หมอตาล, which is an animal of the same family.

B. If a plant or animal name is a class term for plants or animals with similar features of many species or many families, sub-entries must have a meaning related to the headword, which may be of a different species or family from the headword, e.g. จันทน์ has the subheads จันทน์กะพ้อ, จันทน์ขาว, จันทน์ชะมด, etc., or, เขียว ๓ has the subhead เขียวหางไหม้.

From point 1 we learn about sense ordering. This is important because dictionaries generally fall into one of two camps: historical order or frequency order. In the first camp, senses are ordered by earliest known text citation (OED, for example); in the second camp, the most commonly used senses are listed first. We learn that RID is a mix of both. I'm not sure how common this type of organization is, but I find it distressing because so far as I know there is no way to know which is which. We can't assume one or the other without some kind of notation. So as I see it, this boils down to mean that, unfortunately, there is not a ton we can learn from sense ordering in RID99. If the first sense is a commonly used sense, it's probably safe to assume that they are ordered by (rough) frequency. Unfortunately again, I don't think there is any empirical evidence behind their ordering, so even the frequency ordering is probably based only on the sense of the committee members as to which words are more common.

The rest is mostly explanation of notation, which is useful. Like how to interpret the scope of a given usage note based on surrounding punctuation (see point 3), or the genetic relationships of certain flora and fauna with their sub-entries.

January 13, 2008

Thai standup: 21st Century comedy!

While I enjoyed the homecooked 19th Century comedic goodness of my last post, I thought I'd give us a little push into the present century with some help from YouTube. User aanon2550 (who posts as user aanon on the Thai language forum at thaivisa.com) has done English translations for three videos by Thai comedian Note Udom โน๊ต อุดม (อุดม แต้พาณิช). aanon knows his Thai, and the videos are a lot of fun. There is also plenty more of Note's material on YouTube, but I figured I'd post the ones with the English subtitles.

The second two appear to be from other TV appearances, but the first video is apparently from one of Note's series of standup comedy specials. The term for standup comedy in Thai is เดี่ยวไมโครโฟน, which literally means "microphone solo". As opposed to the concept of a standup club where people can come anytime and see different comics, shows here tend to be periodic, but bigger deals held in larger venues. Note has these periodic sell-out events where he packs the place, and then sells the video of the show on VCD. He seems to be extremely well-known and popular, and has been for a while. A few years ago I ran into him at the mall, but had no idea who he was at the time--the Thai friend I was with got his autograph, though. He just did his seventh standup show this past December. You can learn more about him at his website, udomteam.com. Enjoy.

Video 1: แฟนบอกเลิก

Video 2: ศาลพระภูมิ

Video 3: ต้นงิ้ว

January 9, 2008

Old News: 19th Century comedy!

I've found a fun piece from the Bangkok Recorder to share today. I think it was published as filler, because it's a short humorous anecdote that ran on the inside of the back page of the issue, the least important page of a newspaper. Kind of like the forerunner to Reader's Digest using jokes to fill in the space after articles, I guess.

As with the last two installments of Old News, it was first published on November 3, 1865.

A mild warning
ครั้งก่อนมีขุนนางผู้ใหญ่, ได้นั่งกินโตะด้วยกันกับคนอื่นมากนั่งแน่นกันนัก. มีคนหนึ่งที่พูดมาก ๆ นั่งใกล้กันกับคนนั้น. คนที่พูดมากนั้น, ครั้นพูดแล้วก็ยกมือไปมาตามคำที่เขาพูดด้วย. ขุนนางนั้นจึ่งบอกกับเขานั้นว่า, มือของท่านเปนเครื่องรำคาญใจข้าพเจ้านัก. คนนั้นจึงตอบว่า, ขอรับกระผมคนแน่นมาก, เกล้าผมไม่รู้ที่จะเอาไว้ที่ไหนได้, ขุนนางนั้นจึ่งตอบว่า, ถ้าอย่างนั้น ก็เอามือยัดไว้ในปากเสียเถิด.
And my translation:
A mild warning
Once an important nobleman was having a meal with many other people, all crammed around the table. One person sitting near him was talking nonstop. When the man was speaking he would wave his arms about along with his words. So the nobleman said to him, "Your hands are an annoyance to me." The man replied, "my lord, the table is so crowded that I don't know where to put them!" The nobleman thus replied, "If that's the case, then stick them in your mouth!"
As far as I know, Dan Beach Bradley wrote (or often translated) the entire contents of the newspaper, which makes me wonder if this joke isn't translated from some Western source. It strikes me as vaguely familiar, but I can't place it. Has anyone heard a story similar to this in English?

Something interesting to notice about the language usage:
The pronoun เกล้าผม. Many Thai higher-register pronouns (those used to show respect to superiors) comes from words that refer to either the head (as in this case) or the feet (as in ใต้เท้า). As I understand it, เกล้าผม makes reference to the topknot that was historically worn at the apex of the head by children (until ceremonially cut). But it's particularly interesting to see it in the same sentence with กระผม. I had previously wondered about the origin of กระผม, and considered the possibility that it is a phonologically reduced form of เกล้าผม. This example shows how both are used as honorific pronouns, and they seem to be interchange, but the fact that they both show up in the same sentence may be evidence against my little theory. RID99 includes an entry for เกล้ากระผม, a hybrid of these two, but we need a lot more textual evidence before we can clearly lay out the order of origin for the different versions. (Incidentally, this connection with the head demonstrates that it's no coincidence that ผม means both "hair" and "I". The meaning "hair" undoubtedly came first, and gave rise to the respectful pronoun.)

January 7, 2008

Book review: A Physician at the Court of Siam

A few days ago I finished reading A Physician at the Court of Siam by Malcolm Smith (Oxford in Asia Paperbacks, 1985, 164 pages). First published in 1946, it's gone out of print, but I picked up a used copy on Amazon a while back. Took me almost two years to get around to reading it. I'm glad I finally made the time.

Malcolm Smith served as a court doctor for Queen Saowapa Pongsi
(พระองค์เจ้าเสาวภาผ่องศรี, alternately spelled Saovabha Bhongsi), one of the four royal consorts of King Chulalongkorn, and mother to Kings Vajiravudh and Prajadhipok (Ramas VI and VII), and thus he has some extremely unique and rare insights into palace life during his time in the country's history. Smith arrived in Siam in 1905, and maintained a private practice outside of the palace in Bangkok while constantly being on call for the Queen. After Rama V passed away in 1910, Saowapa became Queen Mother, and she retained Dr. Smith as her physician in an unofficial capacity until her death in 1919.

If Smith's account concerned only his years in Siam, it would be of great value. But he combines his personal account with a great deal of research, particularly on the history of the Chakri Dynasty, in addition to the period of his own experiences. The main character in many ways is Queen Saowapa, as she is the member of the royal household whom Smith came to know best. He writes of her eccentricities in a fascinating level of detail and candor. The book reads very quickly, and fortunately lacking much of the ethnocentrism of so many earlier Western accounts. While one can tell that Smith views the typical Southeast Asian laid back attitude towards work and efficiency with a predictable Western distaste, he has enough objectivity (and perhaps enough distance, writing the book many years after leaving Siam), to avoid treading too far into "noble savage" territory like so many of the early Westerners in Siam who have left us their stories to read. And since he did not travel to Thailand as a missionary, his account makes nary a reference to religion at all. So we are spared the supplications (so typical in early Western accounts) for the expeditious redemption of the ignorance-shrouded, hell-bound souls of the heathen Siamese.

This book is perhaps unlike any other in its details of Siamese court life, excepting Anna Leonowens' An English Governess at the Court of Siam, the book (presented as fact but mixed with plenty of fiction) which formed the basis for Margaret Landon's 1942 book Anna and the King of Siam (even looser with the facts), which became further distorted in the 1946 film of the same name, and again into the cartoonish
(if not unenjoyable) Broadway musical and film The King and I and finally culminating in the utterly preposterous 1999 endeavor Anna and the King. Smith seems to be the more neutral and thus reliable source. He even gets in a mild dig at Leonowens (keep in mind they were not contemporaries--she arrived in Thailand 40 years before he did). He writes of her unflattering portrayal of King Mongkut, "we need not believe all that she said; her books, particularly her second one [Romance of the Harem], show that she was gifted with a vivid imagination which at times took charge of her pen" (p. 42).

Much of Leonowens' negative portrayal of the monarch's private life stems from her extreme displeasure with polygamy. On this point Leonowens and Smith could not disagree more. In fact, Smith goes so far as to include a chapter in his book defending the practice in turn-of-the-twentieth-century Siam. He examines the hyperbolic estimates
by what he terms "irresponsible" writers of the size of the Siamese kings' harems, and compares those estimates with the official chronicle to debunk them as uninformed. He also makes an attempt to defend the inbreeding, ahem, "consanguineous marriage" practiced in the Siamese royal family, as in many a royal family worldwide (his employer Queen Saowapa was the half-sister of her husband King Chulalongkorn--children of King Mongkut by different wives). Smith's take on these issues makes for a compelling alternate perspective, even if his defensiveness struck me as odd.

In all, I recommend Smith's book as a quick read that will easily sustain the interest of anyone with the slightest inclination for Thai history.

My typical modus operandi for selecting new reading material is to start several books at once. Right now I've started National Identity and its Defenders: Thailand Today, edited by Craig J. Reynolds, a collection of articles on the shaping and maintenance of the Thai national culture and identity which is already turning out to be utterly fascinating; Mo Bradley and Thailand, by Donald C. Lord, a book of ever-increasing rarity about Dan Beach Bradley (of Bangkok Recorder and first Thai-Thai dictionary fame); and Siam Mapped: A History of the Geo-Body of a Nation, which has been recommended to me by a couple of people. It remains to be seen which will succeed in drawing me in before the others.

If you have any book recommendations, please leave a comment, or write me at the email address at the bottom of the page.

January 5, 2008

Know Your Dictionary: Pronunciation Guides in RID99

[Note: See also in this series introduction, sorting, orthography, symbols, and word senses. Forthcoming: etymology and list of abbreviations.]

I'm back again with another installment in the Know Your Dictionary series, in which I am translating the introduction to the Royal Institute Dictionary, 1999 Edition. The remaining installments will be coming down the pipeline quickly. They're all translated, but I've been staggering them to avoid entirely chasing away readers who prefer less, ahem, arcane topics. The original Thai for this translation is here.

Part 4: Pronunciation guides

Pronunciation guides follow these rules:
1. Words that end with the basic final consonants, e.g. แม่กน* spelled with น, แม่กบ spelled with บ, as in the words คน or พบ, are not given a pronunciation guide.

2. Words with ญ ณ ร ล ฬ pronounced like น, words with ข ค ฆ pronounced like ก, words with จ ช ฎ ฏ ฐ ฑ ฒ ต ถ ท ธ ศ ษ ส pronounced like ด, words with ป พ ฟ ภ pronounced like บ--all four types are given pronunciation guides if the spelling causes ambiguous pronunciation.

3. Pali and Sanskrit words that are samasa (สมาส) compounds must usually be pronounced according to compounding rules, i.e. pronouncing the final syllable with a compound อะ vowel; this type of word is given a pronunciation guide, e.g. ทารุณกรรม [ทารุนนะกำ], สุขนาฏกรรม [สุกขะนาดตะกำ], รูปธรรม [รูบปะทำ]. For words which have developed two pronunciations, i.e. a rule pronunciation and a popular pronunciation, the rule pronunciation is given first, e.g. ประวัติศาสตร์ [ปฺระหฺวัดติสาด, ปฺระหฺวัดสาด], มัธยมศึกษา [มัดทะยมมะ-, มัดทะยม-], อุดมการณ์ [อุดมมะ-, อุดม-].

4. Pronunciations with the phinthu (พินทุ) dot beneath a letter means either:
A. That letter is a "leading letter" and is not pronounced, i.e. a phinthu dot is placed below ห to prevent alternate pronunciations that have different meanings, e.g. เหลา [เหฺลา], เหย [เหฺย], แหงน [แหฺงน].
B. That letter is part of a consonant cluster, which there are three of in Thai, i.e. ร ล ว; the phinthu dot is placed below the first letter of the cluster to cause the two consonants to be read as a cluster, e.g. ไพร [ไพฺร], ปลอบ [ปฺลอบ], กว่า [กฺว่า].

5. Words from other languages which formerly were pronounced with consonant clusters and when borrowed into Thai are pronounced as two syllables are given Thai pronunciation guides, e.g. เสด็จ [สะเด็ด], พยาบาท [พะยาบาด], แสตมป์ [สะแตม].

6. For sub-entries with possibly ambiguous pronunciation because the pronunciation is not the same as that of the headword, a pronunciation guide is given for the sub-entry, e.g. กล, กล- [กน, กนละ- ] น. ... กลไก [กน-] น. ... กลฉ้อฉล [กน-] น. ... กลบท [กนละบด] น. ...
To be honest, I have trouble understanding why the Royal Institute doesn't do a better job with pronunciation guides in their dictionary. It betrays the underlying assumption that anything significant in the pronunciation of a Thai word can be captured by the existing orthography. But this ignores some important things. Among them:

1. Syllable stress. This can be non-transparent in compounds, so it should be made explicit.

2. Vowels written long but pronounced short (for example, เส้น is short but เสน is long; แห่ง is short but แห้ง is long. While there is a regular pattern to this sort of thing, their approach assumes the reader inherently knows this, but this isn't obvious and rarely taught to second-language learners.

3. Words with short vowels but no final glottal stop. For example, the particle นะ, among others. Compare with ณ, which has a final glottal stop, and you'll see what I mean. This is also important because some words must always be pronounced with a glottal stop, in both careful and fast speech (e.g. สะใจ), while huge numbers of words lose their glottal stops in normal/fast speech or in compounds, but not always predictably so (e.g. สาระ--yes glottal vs. สารพัด--no glottal vs. สารสนเทศ--yes glottal). It's time for a publication as venerated as RID to start differentiating. Assuming users know the right answer is not the answer.

In English dictionaries, for as long as I've been using them (that's my cop-out way of saying I don't know when this innovation was introduced), the basic alphabet has to be augmented in order to systematically represent all of the sounds possible in the language. Lexicographers of English use breves and macrons and other diacritics and punctuation to try to best represent the spoken language on paper. RID gets away with using only the พินทุ (the little dot placed below a letter to indicate a consonant cluster). Unfortunately, that doesn't really cut it. It's in instances like this that it's clear that RID is intended for native users. I'm sure the scholars at the Royal Institute could devise a better system using Thai orthography. And it's okay if it takes users some learning to be able to interpret. I remember often having to flip to pronunciation guide on the inside front cover of my old Merriam-Webster Collegiate as a kid to check if a certain symbol stood for a as in father or a as in cat. Nothing invested, nothing gained.

Well, enough of my cranky ranting. If you can think of any other insights into the RID's system, leave a comment. Tune in next time for the section about word senses. Before that, though, I have a couple of gems from the Bangkok Recorder to share, in the long-awaited (by me, if no one else) return of the feature Old News [see previous installments of Old News about Siam's first advertising and the original Siamese twins].

*This format of แม่ X (แม่กก แม่กง แม่กน แม่กด etc.) is used in schools to teach Thai children about which final consonants make what sound. So แม่กด consists of words ending with ด ต ท ถ, and so forth). It's difficult to succinctly translate, but when it says "
แม่กน spelled with น" what it means is final consonants that are pronounced น that are also spelled with น. I chose to translate this concept as the "words that end in the basic final consonants".

January 4, 2008

New "Life of Buddha" animated film misses the point

There is a rather scathing review of the new Thai animated film The Life of Buddha over at Prachathai. In the review, Pali scholar Eisel Mazard points out both its anachronisms (for example, the Buddha is seen reading a manuscript written in Khmer, and he is portrayed as having no female monastic followers) and its flat out failure to portray any of the actually meaningful events in the life of the Buddha, instead focusing on his "magic" abilities. Says Mazard:
He evidently never said, wrote, or recited anything of philosophic significance, and is instead an object of worship simply on account of his (supposed) royal blood and conjurer's tricks.
These are harsh words, and although I haven't seen the film, this state of affairs doesn't surprise me. There is much that is elegant and profound in the theodicy, cosmogony, and other philosophies of Buddhism. But as the recent จตุคาม (Jatukam) amulet fad--gone as quickly as it came--shows us, so very little of it penetrates the everyday lives of the masses of a supposedly Buddhist nation, who adhere more to ไสยศาสตร์ folk traditions and หมอดู fortune tellers.

Mazard has no shortage of vitriol for this film. He goes on:
The film is garbage; however, the monks and laypeople that now step forward in praise of it (as an accurate depiction of the historical Buddha) do us a great favor in discrediting themselves.
And he finally concludes:
There was (and is) "a point" and "a plot" to the Pali canon; and it's a shame that both the film-makers, and so much of the Thai audience, simply miss the point.
Does this film indicate that Thailand is forgetting why the Buddha became a significant historical figure in the first place? Anymore, is he worshipped merely for worshipping's sake?

That it turned out this way is ironic, if not sad, as it appears to have been the passion project of its primary funder, Thai businesswoman Wallapa Phimtong. After numerous setbacks, she reportedly had to sell off her cars, land and other assets to cover the more than 100 million baht
price tag of the project.

If the email forwards that I've seen going around are any indication, the film, which opened a month ago on the King's 80th birthday, hasn't done well. The email I received from well-meaning acquaintances urges everyone to go see this upstanding and moral film so that it doesn't get pulled from theaters. I agree with the sentiment--good films deserve to be watched so that more good films can be made. But if the movie is this poorly executed, perhaps the fact that it's an apparent box office bomb might be interpreted as a good sign for the state of Buddhism in Thailand. But I don't think so, and Bangkok Post film critic Kong Rithdee would seem to agree:
"[The film] mirrors the national climate of institutional worship and the indifference, if not the ignorance, to how modern society has twisted Lord Buddha's teachings into something much less pure than their original meanings."
Perhaps I'll go consult my fortune teller now about which day is most auspicious to go see this movie.

January 2, 2008

Etymologist 12: Is it 'too late' to learn the truth about ทุเรศ?

Folk etymologies are an interesting phenomenon. It's a natural human impulse to want to assign meaning and order to the world around us, and this extends to language. Yet language is extremely dynamic, endlessly evolving, constantly changing. We tend to lack the long-term perspective necessary to make sense of it all. And yet we attempt to find reason within our limited frame of knowledge, and manage to come up with explanations. Sometimes good, sometimes bad. Simply put, a folk etymology is a false conception of the origin of a word or phrase.

There's always some logic behind a folk etymology, though. It has to be plausible. For example, if I claimed that the expression 'groovy' was invented by Lord Zorgath, emperor of the planet Yaxelblurg, because he had an obsession with vinyl records and considered their grooved surface the pinnacle of aesthetic advancement, you'd likely have the nice young men in their clean white coats come to take me away. But if I told you that the money given to someone as a gratuity for some service is called a 'tip' because it comes from the phrase 'to insure promptness,' well, you just might believe me (but don't--it's another folk etymology).

In English, competing folk etymologies abound. The globally ubiquitous expression 'OK' is perhaps foremost in sheer number of dubious claims of origin, but expressions like "mind your Ps and Qs", and the curse words that begin with f and sh respectively have plenty of colorful stories purporting to capture their true origins, too.

h of the time, the true etymology of a word is just plain boring by comparison. And as it happens, most folks don't know the details of sound changes and semantic shifts and derivations and inflections that drive language change. So folk etymologies are born. Someone wonders about the origin of this word or that phrase, and comes up with what seems like a logical story. And even in the face of linguistic evidence, people may still want to believe the more interesting version. So folk etymologies persist.

It's no surprise, then, that Thai has folk etymologies, just like English. One I've heard is for the word ทุเรศ. A quick check in RID99 returns this definition:
ทุเรศ (ปาก) คําพูดแสดงความรู้สึกเมื่อประสบสิ่งที่ขัดหูขัดตาหรือเป็นที่น่าสมเพชเป็นต้น.

/thureet/ colloq. An expression to show the feeling of when one experiences something displeasing, or deplorable, etc.
The claim of the folk etymology is that this expression comes from the English phrase 'too late'. Now, I understand that 'too late' is used by some Thais as a way of disguising the word ทุเรศ, just like some write 'กวน teen' in place of กวนตีน. It gives it a lighthearted or humorous angle, and can help take the edge off of the word's potential impoliteness. So it's possible that some (or many) folks are only using it to be ironic or funny. Nevertheless, some attempt to claim 'too late' as the legitimate origin of the Thai word.

The claim is that Englishmen came to Siam and set up businesses which employed native Thais. These Thais were not used to the strict timekeeping of the Westerners, and so when they failed to show up to work on time they were told they were "too late" by their English-speaking bosses. The Thais heard "too late" as ทุเรศ, which came to be a term indicating disagreeable or unacceptable behavior, etc.

Nitaya Kanchanawan does a good (and very polite) job of eviscerating this theory, which she heard on TV, in her column มองไทยใหม่ in Matichon Weekly (มติชนสุดสัปดาห์, April 28, 2006, p. 76). You can read my translation of that column here, including the original Thai.

Let's take a closer look at how this folk etymology should have been debunked, and definitely should not have made it onto the Thai airwaves, especially as part of a show about preserving Thai culture, as Dr. Nitaya states in her column.

The first evidence is from the spelling. ทุเรศ looks very much like a Thai spelling of an Indic word. It's true that it does not look much like a native Thai word, but it certainly does not look like an English word. The ร does not match the l in English 'late', and the final consonant ศ is usually a sure sign of an Indic loan.

Anyone who has experience with Thai poetry and classical literature (and all Thais do during their years of compulsory education), the ending เอศ should be familiar. It is one of the optional endings which can be compounded with a root to create a poetic version of a word, maintaining the original meaning. This would be done either for rhythm or rhyme's sake. This sort of compounding for the sake of rhyme is referred to as เข้าลิลิต, and in the case of the suffix เอศ, it's called เติม ศ. เข้าลิลิต.

I've translated a passage explaining this poetic device from this site:
เติม ศ. เข้าลิลิต refers to appending the -อีศ (SKT īśa) to the end of a word without changing the meaning, for the benefit of composition, e.g. to increase the number of syllables, or to give a word a low tone (in fact, it usually results in a falling tone, but since it is a dead syllable, it can be used in place of a low tone), or to make a heavy syllable [i.e. a syllable with a long vowel or final consonant], as needed.
The Sanskrit īśa becomes Thai เอศ, for example, Sanskrit kamala- īśa becomes Thai /ka-ma-lê:t/ (กมล + เอศ = กมเลศ).

This is a clear model for ทุเรศ to follow, which we would expect to be made up of ทุร- and เอศ. And what do you know! RID99 quickly gives up the likely culprit:
ทุร- [ทุระ-] ว. คําประกอบหน้าคําศัพท์ หมายความว่า ชั่ว, ยาก, ลําบาก, น้อย, ไม่มี, เช่น ทุรค ว่า ที่ไปถึงยาก, ทางลําบาก. (ส.).

/thura-/ adj. A prefix meaning evil, hard, difficult, few, none, e.g. ทุรค 'a place difficult to reach, a difficult path' (Skt.).
This fits the meaning of modern ทุเรศ quite well. It's seen in compounds like ทุรกันดาร (as in ถิ่นทุรกันดาร 'wasteland'), and is the etymological sibling of the prefix ทร- (as in ทรราช 'tyrant', ทรยศ 'betray', ทรมาน 'torture'). The semantic connection with the modern colloquial usage of ทุเรศ is clear enough.

The second line of evidence is text citations. RID99 falls short on this particular entry, even failing to note the word's Indic origin. Fortunately, Matichon Dictionary comes to the rescue:

ทุเรศ ว. ยาก, ลำบาก, เช่น เราแจ้งทางทุเรศเขตอรัญ สัตตภัณฑ์คั่นสมุทรใสสี (กากี). ก. หลีกลี้ไปไกล, ไปห่างไกล, เช่น หมู่สุบรรณพันโกฏิในสิมพลี ทฤษฎีแล้วทุเรศจากสถาน (สมบัติอมรินทร์). (ปาก) ว. อุจาด; คำพูดแสดงความรู้สึกว่าสิ่งนั้นๆ บุคคลนั้นๆ หรือการกระทำนั้นๆ เป็นที่น่าสมเพชหรือขัดหูขัดตา.

/thureet/ adj. Difficult, troublesome, e.g. เราแจ้งทางทุเรศเขตอรัญ สัตตภัณฑ์คั่นสมุทรใสสี (กากี). v. flee far away, go far away, e.g. หมู่สุบรรณพันโกฏิในสิมพลี ทฤษฎีแล้วทุเรศจากสถาน (สมบัติอมรินทร์). (colloq.) adj. disgusting; an expression to show the feeling that a thing or person or action is deplorable or displeasing.
Matichon includes two citations, both dating from the reign of Rama I (1782-1809). The nails are starting to go into the coffin of this folk etymology. From these citations alone it becomes utterly unlikely that a well-formed Thai poeticism would have anything to do with English, but indulge me in eliminating any possibility.

The earliest contact of British traders with Siam that I can find record of is a meeting of Captain William Keeling of the East India Company with an ambassador of Siam at the Javanese city of Bantam in 1608*. This doesn't yet approach setting up businesses and hiring Thai employees on Siamese soil, but we can confidently say that there was no possibility of such a situation taking place with English speakers prior to 1608. A citation of ทุเรศ prior to 1608 should close the case on the origin of this phrase. And Dr. Nitaya is the one who provides it, from the same article linked above:
If we go back to the time of King Trailokanat of Ayutthaya, we find that he ordered a meeting of royal scholars to compose the Mahajati, in the year 1482.

In the Matsi Sermon, when Princess Matsi reproaches Prince Wetsandon for giving their two children to Chuchok, the passage reads:
"Princess Matsi responded, when the Prince had given her two true friends as alms, 'Why do you torture me? For what purpose do I suffer to go about in search of them throughout the night?"
This passage shows that /thureet/ has been used since the Ayutthaya period, and also probably before the establishment of farang businesses.
[Original Thai is here. I'm not extremely confident about my translation of the passage. Corrections welcome.]
In fact, 1482 predates the earliest known contact with any Western nation, the first being Portugal in 1511. The 'too late' folk etymology makes for a good story, but it turns out that's all it is.

*Anderson, John. 1890. English Intercourse with Siam in the Seventeenth Century, p.46. [Downloadable via Google Books within the United States, as far as I know. I have the PDF saved offline.]