March 4, 2009

Loanwords 6: In the car

The influence of English permeates much of Thai life, particularly in technological areas. Compared with Web 2.0, iPhone mania, and other trends hitting Thailand, the good ol' automobile seems so last century.

But being as cars were the high technology of their time (and with fancy innovations continue to be), many loanwords have become fixed in Thai that relate to the automobile:

เบรก = brake. Used as both noun (เหยียบเบรก "apply the brakes") and verb (เบรกไม่ทัน "couldn't brake in time"). Also used figuratively by extension, meaning to attempt to stop or hinder something. Cf. similar expressions in English like "put the brakes on (a plan, etc.)".

ล็อค = lock. Also spelled ลอค, ล๊อค, etc. Mostly used as a verb in Thai -- อย่าลืมลอครถ "Don't forget to lock the car." The mostly-ubiquitous keyless entry thingamajig is known as a ที่ล็อครถ or more formally, อุปกรณ์ล็อครถ.

เลน = lane (i.e. a painted division of a road). This is what I call a Chameleon English, because it has no indicators in its spelling that it's not a native word. It's widely preferred to the "official" terms ช่อง, ช่องทาง, and most formally ช่องทางจราจร, which you'll see in signs.

ยูเทิร์น = U-turn. The Thai is กลับรถ (or จุดกลับรถ, for the place you make a U-turn), but since all the signs say "U-turn" in English, this is another common one to hear Thais use as a verb, where ยูเทิร์น = "to make a U-turn."

สมอลล์ทอล์ก [สะ-มอ-ท็อก] "small talk" = hands-free headset, i.e. the headphone with dangling mic that you plug in to your cell phone to talk on while driving. Thailand recently made it illegal to use your phone while driving without one, and this is now the generic term for all such corded devices. Not sure of the origin -- a brand name, I'd guess. And if it's a wireless earpiece, it's called a บลูทูธ "Bluetooth". (Some Thais I've talked to don't realize this is the name of the wireless protocol, but then "Bluetooth" is used as a noun for Bluetooth-powered wireless earpieces in English, too.)

I'm sure there are more car-related English loans in Thai. These are just off the top of my head. Any others come to mind?


  1. those words related to car mechanical/engine, many also loanwords: ปั๊ม (pump), สตาร์ท (start [the engine]), คาร์บู[เรเตอร์] (carbu[rator]), น็อค ([engine] knock),

  2. Great, thanks for the additions.

    Re สตาร์ต [สะ-ต๊าด], y'all may recall in recent years the slogan used around Songkran time: ตั้งสติก่อนสตาร์ต, i.e. make sure you have your head on your shoulders before you start the car. A clever way of saying "don't drive under the influence." We may see it brought back this year.

    ปั๊ม (from "pump") is, of course, a gas/petrol station: ปั๊มน้ำมัน. I suspect it's also used for the parts within the actual engine, the oil pump and such. Is that the case?

    I didn't know about คาร์บู(เรเตอร์) or น็อค, thanks for those. Another one that occurs to me is โช้ค, meaning the "shocks" (shock absorbers) of the car.

  3. yes, ปั๊ม (pump) is also used for engine parts like oil pump.

    to me, it looks like engineering/technical people are more comfortable to use loanwords than people in other fields. anything related to culture ? .. is that also the case for other language/culture ? .. say, Japanese.

  4. I think it's most likely a practical issue. The RID, who come up with most of the Thai-ified terminology (ศัพท์บัญญัติ) simply can't keep up with new technologies very well. Especially because technical areas are relatively new, and things tend to evolve quickly.

    So foreign words catch on before there's really a chance for a Thai one to exist. Which also highlights the fact that RID-coined terms are "unnatural" language in a sense. An expert made the word up and told people to use it. Whereas the loanwords are "natural" language, because they are passed from one group of actual users to another.

    So words like คณิตกรณ์ will never be widely used, while คอมพิมเตอร์ and such are here to stay.

    Even if the Royal Institute comes out with official ศัพท์บัญญัติ for new(ish) things like wiki, blog, tweet, no one should be surprised if they are roundly ignored.

    Just look at their book ศัพท์ต่างประเทศที่ใช้คำไทยแทนได้. While I understand that there are deep-seated feelings of national pride involved, they're trying to row up Niagara Falls...

  5. That should say RI, not RID. RI = Royal Institute (ราชบัณฑิตยสถาน). RID = Royal Institute Dictionary. Whoops!

  6. What a mess it would be if they were the ones coining the words! :P

  7. Not yet mentioned:

    -Clutch / คลัตช์
    -Dynamo / ไดนาโม
    -Gear / เกียร์

    and maybe แอร์ (aircon)......

  8. A couple of days ago I spotted the word โชว์รูม (showroom) on a map, indicating a car dealership. It has also an entry in Longdo ( "Thai definition: สถานที่แสดงสินค้าขนาดใหญ่เพื่อซื้อขายโดยเฉพาะสินค้าประเภทรถยนต์และเครื่องใช้ไฟฟ้าเป็นต้น"

  9. Related note: on its cover, that map (or rather: atlas) includes a good example of a "chameleon English" word, as you called them - often utterly confusing when encountered out of context. The "word" is เอทูแซด. Can you figure that out on your own?
    Well, I'll spare you the pain. It is meant to signify "A to Z"... because in the next line it says in English: "Freeman's A2Z Atlas of Bangkok". Without that hint, I probably wouldn't have solved the riddle. ;-)