HouseTalk: What Do You Call Your Thai Housekeeper?

HouseTalk What Do You Call Your Thai Housekeeper?

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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 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.

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:

สาวใช้ /săao-chái/
Girl who is used

คนใช้ /kon-chái/
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/.

รับใช้ /ráp-chái/
To serve

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

แม่บ้าน /mâe-bâan/
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?

เมด /mâyt/

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?

พี่เลี้ยง /pêe-líang/

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.

น้า /náa/
Mother’s younger sister

ป้า /bpâa/
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.

Pdf download 1.5mg: What do you call your Thai maid?
Sound download 381kb: What do you call your Thai maid?

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.

Connecting posts:

8 thoughts on “HouseTalk: What Do You Call Your Thai Housekeeper?”

  1. Talen, Talen, Talen… sigh… What am I going to do with you? 😀

    I chose a small(er) place for similar reasons. Privacy. Listening to a housekeeper staying busy throughout the day would disturb the peace of my cosy cave so I mostly limit the event to one day a week (and sometimes suggest that the house is more than clean earlier rather than later).

    As for uniforms, back in the days of throwing fancy dinners I did think about the traditional French maid’s outfit (smart black with white apron) but I didn’t dare put it into action. Instead, when I threw a spiffy dinner I occasionally purchased special clothes (but not uniforms). My spiff = my cost.

  2. Cat, I tend to call my housekeepers Teelac 🙂

    While a housekeeper would be nice I have a small place and I’m generally rather private and don’t like people loose in my domicile. Although there is something to be said for trading services and I do provide nice towel uniforms:P

  3. Snap, when I landed on Borneo (not working) at first I poo poohed the idea of having a live-in Amaha. But before the year was out I’d changed my mind. In the tropics, with the tiring heat and all those bare floors, it was just more practical to hire someone to take on the responsibility. Of course, my house was larger back then so it took longer to clean. And with all the parties and socialising going on, clean was needed.

    Human nature being what it is, I imagine there were abuses going on with the kaa gao dtao liang in Thailand. Some of the Amahs in Borneo were treated quite shabbily by their local employers when I was there too. Some would only give one day off a month for their Amahs and even then they were only allowed to go to church and back. Boggles the mind really. And these are modern times too.

  4. Catherine, I’ve never had a maid, but after being a ‘home economist’ (housewife and mother) for 13 years, I entered the work force as an ‘office administrator’ (secretary). It was then I had a ‘cleaner’ (cleaner) come in once a week to do the very basics, like dusting and mopping.

    Ironically, the day you posted about kaa gao dtao liang, was the same day I learned that Thailand once had slaves. I was in Chiang Rai looking at a friends collection of memorabilia, one of which was a picture of Rama V, depicting the day slavery was abolished.

    My friend also said that kaa gao dtao liang are sometimes terribly abused by their owners, I mean employees?

  5. When writing this post I didn’t even think of coolie. To me it’s derogatory so I wouldn’t use it unless in jest (and only with family or close friends). I see that it also has links to ‘slave’.

    coolie |ˈkoōlē|
    noun ( pl. -lies) offensive
    An unskilled native laborer in India, China, and some other Asian countries.
    ORIGIN mid 17th cent.: from Hindi and Telugu kūlī ‘day-laborer,’ probably associated with Urdu ḳulī ‘slave.’

  6. Neither Ploy or I would feel comfortable with a maid or housekeeper, certainly not a live in one so we choose shirts that we can get away with not ironing.

    But I remember one of my Thai language books used the term coolie which is suitably denigrating and quaint at the same time.


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