Thai Language Thai Culture: Non-Synonymous Synonyms

Thai Language

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Non-Synonymous Synonyms…

As often happens, a mistake I made in speaking Thai has led me to thinking about things to share with our readers. In this case it’s where a Thai word has a certain English translation in one situation, but another Thai word, often with the same English translation, needs to be used in different situation.

Case in point: The other day while I was out shopping a clerk was quite helpful, so when the bill came to 90 baht I gave her a 100 baht bill and wanted to say, “keep the change”.

Here is what I said: “ไม่ต้องคืนเงิน” /mâi dtông keun ngern/

I wanted to say “no need to return (the change)”. But as soon as I said it, and saw the expression on the clerk’s face, I knew I had made another of my infamous Spoken Thai blunders.

Here is the problem: The Thai word คืน /keun/ means “to return” (in that I am returning money I borrowed from you). So I told the clerk, “you don’t have to return my money.” She was probably wondering when I had lent her any money.


What I should have used was: ทอน /​ton/, which means to “return” (money, as in change – like, I give you 100 baht for a 90 baht bill and the “change” or เงินทอน /ngern ​ton/ is 10 baht).

So, I should have said: “ไม่ต้องทอนเงิน” /mâi dtông ton ngern/, which means, “no need to return the change”. Or more loosely translated, “keep the change”.

I know, it’s a little thing but many of the blank expressions we receive come from saying the wrong thing in Thai. Inexperienced learners of Thai think it is because Thais don’t want us to learn Thai, which is ludicrous. Usually, and in my case almost always, it is because I have said something incomprehensible.

Here are more Thai words that can be translated as synonymous but will get us blank expressions if we don’t use them in the correct context.

Steal, Rob, Hold up, Cheat, Break into…

There are lots of words for thievery, or the breaking of the second Buddhist precept. Some of these are interchangeable and some are quite specific in how they are used.

ขโมย /kà~​moi/ – thief (n); to steal (v)

คนขโมยมอเตอร์ไซค์ /kon kà~​moi mor-​dter-​sai/
Someone stole my motorcycle.

คอมโดนขโมย /kom dohn kà~​moi/
The computer was stolen.

เขาเป็นขโมย /kăo bpen kà~​moi/
He’s a thief.

จี้ /jêe/ – to rob

เขาโดนจี้ที่ถนน /kăo dohn jêe têe tà-nŏn/
He was robbed on the street (mugged).

ปล้น /bplôn/ – hold up; plunder

โจรปล้นธนาคาร /john bplôn tá~​naa-​kaan/
The thief held up (robbed) the bank.

โกง /gohng/ – defraud, cheat, swindle

พี่เขยโกงเงินผม /pêe kŏie gohng ngern pŏm/
My brother-in-law cheated (swindled) me out of my money.

งัด /ngát/ – break in (force or break open)

บ้านโดนงัด /bâan dohn ngát/
The house was broken into.

Doctor words…

Thai is full of words that are specific to the people we are talking to (peers, elders, juniors, etc.). There are some words we should have at the ready when we are going to talk to a doctor to explain specific symptoms. They may or may not be the same words we use with our drinking buddies.

Common word: หัว /hŭa/; headache – ปวดหัว /bpùat-​hŭa/
Doctor word: ศีรษะ ​/sĕe-sà/; headache – ปวดศีรษะ /bpùat-​sĕe-sà/

Buttocks (bottom, butt)
Common word: ก้น /gôn/; My butt hurts. – ปวดก้น /bpùat gôn/
Doctor word: ตะโพก /dtà~​pôhk/; I have a pain in my bottom. – ปวดตะโพก /bpùat dtà~​pôhk/

Urinate (Note: There are many, many words for this in Thai. The most polite are used here).
Common word: ฉี่ /chèe/; Urin – น้ำฉี่ /náam chèe/; Trouble peeing – มีปัญหาฉี่ /mee bpan-hăa chèe/
Doctor word: ปัสสาวะ /bpàt-săa-wá/; Urin – น้ำปัสสาวะ /nám bpàt-săa-wá/; Trouble urinating – มีปัญหาปัสสาวะ /mee bpan-hăa bpàt-săa-wá/

Common word: เลือด /lêuat/; Blood pressure – ความดันเลือด /kwaam-​dan-​lêuat/
Doctor word: โลหิต /loh-​hìt/; Blood pressure – ความดันโลหิต /kwaam-​dan-​loh-​hìt/

To return…

As illustrated above there are lots of words that mean “return”.

กลับคืน /​glàp-​keun/ – to return (turn back, come back)
กลับมา /​glàp-​maa/ – to return (from somewhere)
ผลตอบแทน /pŏn dtòp taen/ – a return (on an investment); yield
ผลกำไร /pŏn gam-rai/ – profitable return
คืน /keun/ – to return (give something back)
ทอนเงิน /ton ngern/ – to return money (to give change)

Change (exchange)…

And “change” has many Thai translations too.

เปลี่ยนแปลง /bplìan-​bplaeng/ – to change (an action, do something differently)
แลกเปลี่ยน /lâek-​bplìan/ – to exchange something (with)
อัตราแลกเปลี่ยน /àt-​dtraa-​lâek-​bplìan/ – exchange rate (foreign exchange)
แบ็งค์ย่อย /báeng-​yôi/ – change (as in small bank notes)
เงินทอน /ngern-​ton/ – change (money returned)

Hugh Leong
Retire 2 Thailand
Retire 2 Thailand: Blog
eBooks in Thailand

8 thoughts on “Thai Language Thai Culture: Non-Synonymous Synonyms”

  1. I became aware of a different word for head, other than หัว, when I saw signs saying ‘watch your head’, at escalators, for example. They use the word ศีรษะ ​

  2. Hi Hugh and Michel,

    I was intrigued and did a little digging…

    Hugh, Longdo’s online dictionary has a word you mentioned, โจรกรรม as a verb as well as a noun: [v] steal, Example: เขาโจรกรรมไข่นกเพื่อไปขายให้แก่ตลาดมืดค้าไข่นก.

    The Domnern/Sathiengpong dictionary also lists “to pillage” and “to plunder” among โจรกรรม’s meanings (the rest of which are nouns.)

    Thanks for another interesting article!

  3. Michel,

    Opps! I just realized I didn’t answer your question correctly. You wanted a verb for โจร. Seems like there are lots of ways to convert a verb into a noun but don’t really know how to change a noun into a verb. Maybe someone out there knows and can send us some help.

    I thought of ทำเป็นโจร “To make like a thief.” but I don’t think anyone would say that.

    Sorry about the mix up. I need to get some sleep.

  4. Michel,

    Yes there is.

    โจรกรรม /joh-rá~gam/ – heist; robbery; theft (The suffix กรรม is often used to turn a verb into a noun and can be translated as “Karma” but in fact is derived from the word for “action” – Thus: The action of a thief is a robbery.)

    Other uses of โจร

    โจรกรรมทางวรรณกรรม /joh-rá~gam-taang-wan-ná~gam/ – Plagiarism (วรรณกรรม = literature)

    โจรปล้นกลางทาง /john-bplôn-glaang-taang/ – Hijacker (กลางทาง = middle of the road)

    โจรเวหา /john-way-hǎa/ – airplane hijacker (เวหา = “sky”)

    โจรสลัด /john-sà~làt/ – Pirate (สลัด is a borrowed word for “salad”, but it also means “pirate”)

    โจรห้าร้อย /john-hâa-rói/ – Scoundrel (This idiom comes from a old story about 500, ห้าร้อย, thieves)


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