This article was originally posted on WomenLearnThai.com.
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What do you call your maid?…
When I lived in Japan I was just a short bit of stuff. It was too long ago to remember what our maid was called so I asked someone who would know: Tony Joh from thai-faq.com. Tony informed me that maid in Japanese is either ote or kaseifu. Nice to know.
Then when I moved back to a western country the person who cleaned my house was called a maid and a cleaner took care of the office. Similar duties, different titles.
But when I moved to the island of Borneo the job description used by both locals and expats changed to Amah. And from what I’ve read, Amah is the Cantonese word for mother, wet nurse, or surrogate mother. Apparently British expats spread it throughout the region, hence its usage in Borneo.
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I’ve long since moved from the west and in that time a politically correct society has emerged. Garbage collectors became sanitation engineers (or has that changed) and maids also went for a name change.
So maid was turfed out and housekeeper (executive housekeeper even), house help, domestic help, and cleaner were brought in as the PC words to use. It’s a pity really, because maid is shorter (and I personally hold no ill will towards the title).
So what do you call your Thai maid?…
Now that I’m living in Thailand discovering what to call a Thai maid was needed so I asked Kaewmala (Thai Women Talks) and Rikker (Thai 101). Kaewmala ran me through the possibilities, both former and present. The former goes first:
Girl who is used
Person who is used
In Kaewmala’s mindset both are pejorative (contemptuous). Rikker agreed, stating that คนใช้ /kon-chái/ and สาวใช้ /săao-chái/ are now comparable to ‘servant’ vs ‘domestic worker’ in English.
Rikker went on to say that while the meanings haven’t really changed, the connotations have. They both imply a lack of free will. Not slavery, but not too far from it.
Paraphrasing Rikker: ‘used’ has more negative connotations in English than in Thai but the verb ใช้ /chái/ (used) is still common. For example, ใช้ ไป ซื้อ /chái bpai séu/ means ‘to send to buy’ (something) and sending someone to the market to buy something doesn’t imply negative intentions. The verb ‘to serve’ is รับใช้ /ráp-chái/. And true or not, a politician often announces that he serves the public: รับใช้ ประชา ชน /ráp-chái bprà-chaa chon/.
ใช้ ไป ซื้อ /chái bpai séu/
To send (someone) to buy
Getting back to labeling your Thai maid…
Kaewmala brought up that คน ช่วย ทำงานบ้าน /kon chûay tam-ngaan-bâan/ (the person who helps with the housework) is the proper description but it’s much too much whereas แม่บ้าน /mâe-bâan/ (house mother) is just right. And both mâe-bâan and Ahma hark back to our mothers. Makes sense.
คน ช่วย ทำงานบ้าน /kon chûay tam-ngaan-bâan/
Person who helps with the housework
Housekeeper (house mother)
Rikker ended by saying that the English pronunciation of ‘maid’ is also used in Thailand. It’s spelt เมด /mâyt/ but pronounced เหมด. So… do we still get to use maid?
In Thailand, what you call your maid is a family matter…
The above terms are mostly used to refer to the jobs people do, not the actual names you’d call your housekeeper/maid. For instance, even though it’s formal I pair my housekeeper’s nickname with คุณ /kun/ to get คุณกุ้ง /kun gûng/.
That’s right. If you are familiar with Thailand then you’ll already know that in polite Thai you use คุณ /kun/. It’s sort of like saying Mr or Mrs (and I’m just courteous that way).
It’s also common to use kinship terms in reference to the hired and sometimes inherited help.
Rikker’s domestic is called a พี่เลี้ยง /pêe-líang/ but that’s because she insists on the title of nanny. In reality, she does more housework than childcare so perhaps she feels that a แม่บ้าน /mâe-bâan/ has lower status than a พี่เลี้ยง /pêe-líang/? Does anyone know who holds the higher rank on the Thai homefront?
Rikker’s young daughter calls her nanny น้า /náa/ but if the nanny were of the older persuasion she just might be called ป้า /bpâa/ instead.
Mother’s younger sister
Aunt, elder sister of parents
So go ahead and tell me. Please. Are you even mildly confused yet?
Downloads: What do you call your Thai housekeeper…
As I mentioned in the introduction post, Miscommunicating with Your Thai Housekeeper, the HouseTalk series will include downloads. Amongst the files will be sounds, Thai script and transliteration. The sound folder will include sound files only, and when I can keep the files to a reasonable size the pdfs will have the sounds linked in.
Please note: The materials are for your own personal use only.
The Thai HouseTalk series…
Before we launch into Thai phrases we’ll visit even more kinship terms used with the household staff in Thailand. It’s quite the interesting subject and I hope you enjoy it as much as I did researching, writing, and discussing it.
- HouseTalk: Miscommunicating with Your Thai Housekeeper
- HouseTalk: What Do You Call Your Thai Housekeeper?
- HouseTalk: Kinship Terms for Thai Housekeepers and more
- HouseTalk: Learn Basic Thai Cleaning Instructions
- HouseTalk: Learn Mostly Useful Thai Laundry Phrases
- HouseTalk: Learn Thai Washer and Dryer Phrases