March 8, 2008

Semantic Switcheroo

The last post about Thai palindromes gave me another idea. Often when you put two Thai words together it means one thing, and reverse them and it means something else entirely. I thought it would be interesting to look at some examples of how different (or not) these meanings can be:

หมายเลข /maai leek/ vs. เลขหมาย /leek maai/
Both of these mean number, but the usage is slightly different. For one thing, you've got the word หมาย in there, which means aim, mark, intend. Both of these are a kind of assigned or ordered number.
  • หมายเลข is the formal word for number in 'telephone number' หมายเลขโทรศัพท์ (the colloquial word being เบอร์, coming from the last syllable of the English word 'number'). RID defines it as เลขลําดับ 'ordered number', and gives the examples of telephone number and contestant number one. The Thai word for First Lady (as in Laura Bush, but not for long) is สตรีหมายเลขหนึ่ง. Note that this is different from the typical ordinal numbers, which are ที่+number, e.g. ที่หนึ่ง 'first'.
  • เลขหมาย is most commonly heard in that obnoxious little soundbite, เลขหมายที่ท่านเรียกไม่สามารถติดต่อได้ในขณะนี้ 'The number you have dialed cannot be connected', which usually means the person's cell phone is off. But wait, you ask, shouldn't this be หมายเลข, because it's a phone number. You'd think so. That's where the switcheroo comes in. เลขหมาย is defined in RID as จํานวนตัวเลขที่กําหนดไว้ 'an assigned number', so maybe that's why. And now that I think about it, I think I've heard the above 'cannot be connected' message with both หมายเลข and เลขหมาย. Overall, this switcheroo is a bit nitpicky.
ดีใจ /dii jai/ vs. ใจดี /jai dii/
This one is a classic illustration of the difference between the two main categories of 'heart words' in Thai.* Most often, word+ใจ is a temporary emotional state, while ใจ+word indicates a more permanent personality trait. This is probably because ใจ+word is really ใจ+modifier, which is to say, it describe a characteristic of your heart/mind.
  • ดีใจ is perhaps best translated as 'glad', but often 'happy' works, too. 'I'm so glad you called' ดีใจจังที่คุณโทรมา
  • ใจดี is often translated as 'kind' or 'generous'. Literally, to have a good heart. Pretty straightforward.
หน้าเสีย /naa sia/ vs. เสียหน้า /sia naa/
  • หน้าเสีย means to look disappointed, crestfallen, etc. The หน้า here is literally the face, and เสีย covers a broad range of negative things, from broken รถเสีย 'broken down car', น้ำเสีย 'wastewater', อาหารเสีย 'spoiled food'.
  • เสียหน้า means to 'lose face', that classic Asian concept. And 'lose face' works as a decent literal translation, too. The word เสีย is seen in related senses in expressions like เสียพ่อแม่ 'to lose one's parents (i.e. they died)', เสียเงิน 'to spend money',** and เสียตัว 'to lose one's virginity' (literally 'lose your body/self').
There are plenty more where these came from, so I'll probably revisit this topic again soon. If you think of any other interesting ones, leave a comment.

* If you prefer fancy linguistics terms, 'heart words' are a type of psycho-collocation (PDF alert).
** But notice that it doesn't mean
'lose money', which would be either ทำเงินหาย, if you literally misplaced some cash, or ขาดทุน, if you lost money in a business venture.


  1. Not to be pedantic or anything, but it looks like a ให้/หา่ย switcheroo is needed on the final paragraph ;) It's interesting though that having ให้ there changes the meaning to "make money for (someone)", which is more-or-less the opposite meaning of what it would have with หาย instead.

    That got me thinking, I wonder if there's any of these which have completely opposite meanings when switched around. It seems like words with หมด would have the potential for that, given it's two meanings of "completely" and "finished/used up", but I couldn't think of a specific example. The รักหมดใจ / ใจหมดรัก one was the nearest I could think of (lots of Google examples of that), although it's obviously cheating a bit to add the extra word in there.

  2. You're right, obviously--brain fart on my part. Changed it to หาย.

    รักหมดใจ and ใจหมดรัก is a good one. I'll try to think of others using หมด.

  3. หนวกหู - too loud of noise
    หูหนวก - to be deaf