Thai Language Thai Culture: Pain and Suffering

Thai Language

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Pain and Suffering…

My last post was about dental vocabulary. To keep me believing in the concept of Synchronicity, after finishing my post I broke a lower molar and had to go back to the dentist to have a crown made.

Let the fun begin.

Woa !!! Aching, hurting, burning and stinging…

As I sat in the chair with my mouth wide open for close to 3 hours, enjoying the deftness of my dentist, I used this considerable free time I found myself with to think about all the Thai words and phrases I could remember that had anything to do with “pain” and “suffering”. I mean, it was something that was already on my mind.

It turns out that I didn’t have to look very far for appropriate vocabulary as my dentist kept using one or more of the many “pain words” that I began to grow so familiar with, usually to tell me what to expect next.

Ache: ปวด /bpùuat/


The word ปวด /bpùuat/ is best translated as “ache” and is the pain prefix for a number of common ailments.

Toothache: ปวดฟัน /bpùuat-​fan/ – why I was sitting in the dentist chair.
Headache: ปวดหัว /bpùuat-​hǔua/ – what this whole “crown affair” was giving me.
Backache: ปวดหลัง /bpùuat-​lǎng/ – what the dentist’s chair was doing to my back.

Dentist: Does that hurt?
bpùuat mǎi

Me: YES!
bpùuat si

Dentist: I’ll give you a painkiller.
jà hâi yaa-​gɛ̂ɛ-​bpùuat

Me: Gratitude big time! (Please do it quick)
kop-​kun kráp

Hurt: เจ็บ /jèp/

The difference in usage between เจ็บ /jèp/ and ปวด /bpùuat/ is the same as the differences between the English words “hurt” and “ache”. If I stub my toe on a rock it would “hurt” (เจ็บนิ้วเท้า /jèp níu-​táao/ – I hurt my toe) but if after a day or two I still have some pain in my toe then it “aches” (นิ้วเท้าปวด /níu-​táao bpùuat/ – My toe aches and is in pain).

Someone pokes you in the eye with a stick: เจ็บตา /jèp dtaa/
Someone kicks you in the shin: เจ็บขา /jèp kǎa/
You bump your knee on the edge of a table: เจ็บหัวเข่า /jèp hǔua-​kào/

But sometimes you can combine เจ็บ /jèp/ and ปวด /bpùuat/ to be more expressive, like what was happening to me in that dental chair.

Agonize; anguish; feel pain: เจ็บปวด /jèp-​bpùuat/
Excruciating: เจ็บปวดมาก /jèp-​bpùuat-​mâak/

Burning, stinging: แสบ /sàep/

This is the pain you might feel if you were stung by a bee or when the dentist sticks you with a needle injecting the painkiller. But a really good use of แสบ /sàep/ is if you were in a boxing match and someone stung you right on the chin with a good left hook (what I was fanaticizing about doing to my lovely dentist as she was sticking me). A long while ago there was a world-class Thai boxer who had a devastating punch. He was nicknamed – ไอ้แสบ /âi sàep/ “Mr. Sting” for obvious reasons.

Shooting pain: เสียว /sǐiao/

An example from my dentist will show the use of เสียว /sǐiao/. About three hours into my “crown affair”, just as the painkiller ยาแก้ปวด /yaa-​gɛ̂ɛ-​bpùuat/ was wearing off and my dentist needed to blow some air onto my exposed root to dry it out, she said:

Dentist: This is going to hurt (shooting pain) a little.
dǐiao jà sǐiao noi

Me: Woa !!!!!!!! You ain’t kidding! (Shooting pain tends to help me forget my Thai)

เสียว /sǐiao/ is also an emotion. This is the feeling you get when you hear something that makes you cringe, like someone telling you about their last dental visit.

Muscle pain and fatigued: เมื่อย /mêuay/

This is how your muscles feel after exercising too much or sitting in a really uncomfortable dental chair for too long. I love this word because of the almost unpronounceable first vowel sound. Just trying to say it makes my jaw เมื่อย /mêuay/.

Endure: ton /ทน/

Dentist: Endure (take it) just a little longer. We’re almost finished.
ทนได้ น่ะ เดี๋ยวเสร็จ
ton dâai nâ dǐiao sèt

Me: I can handle it.
ton dâai

(Well, that is what I said, not what I was thinking. What I was thinking was that they should get ready to call 911, or 191 in Thailand, as I could feel a heart attack coming on).

But I made it and now I have a nice shinny crown in the back of my mouth and lots of great pain words that hopefully I won’t have to use until my next dental office visit.

Hugh Leong
Retire 2 Thailand
Retire 2 Thailand: Blog
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24 thoughts on “Thai Language Thai Culture: Pain and Suffering”

  1. Examples that have the same irregularity as แซบ are very common words like:
    เล่น เต้น เส้น
    They all are pronounced with a short vowel(the vowel shortener อ็ can’t be written because there’s a tone mark). You’re probably right easier to remember the pronunciation than all the rules and exception on the rules.

  2. ซ โซ่ is a low class consonant and here are the rules:
    -low class consonant+long vowel+no final consonant=middle tone
    -low class consonant+short vowel+no final consonant=high tone
    -low class consonant+short vowel+final consonant either K,P or T=dead syllable= high tone.
    -low class consonant+short vowel+final consonant either N,M,NG,Y or W=live syllable= middle tone.
    -low class consonant+long vowel+final consonant either N,M,NG,Y or W =live syllable=middle tone.
    -low class consonant+long vowel+final consonant either K,P or T=dead syllable=falling tone.

    So, แซบ is falling tone without having ไม้เอก (low tone) and The Royal Institute seems to agree with this.

    My best advice, download the 2nd page of “ThaiCheatSheet” and master it. It’s by far the best and easiest way to understand the tone rules.

    Cat, I remember saw it somewhere on your site, could you all the link to it ?

    I always suggest my students:

    When you hear a word for the first time, try your best to understand the meaning of it from the context then do your best to find out the correct spelling. After that, double check with the “ThaiCheatSheet” mentioned above.

    Feel free to adapt the sound depend on what part of Thailand you are living in.

    It’s the way I understand (my) Thai language 🙂

    The word แซบ come from Northeastern part of Thailand (อีสาน) means delicious/อร่อย.
    Throughout Thailand, people have adopted the word แซบ but misused to describe deliciously spicy food.

    The word แซ้บ (high tone) is a slang, originally came from Chiang Mai, used to call a gang of motorcycle teenagers.

    เจ็บ is a sharp,fast,acute,easily located pain.This type of pain generally comes on suddenly.
    ปวด is occasionally after เจ็บ and persists over a longer period of time than acute pain.

    The easiest to understand แสบ is pour alcohol over a fresh wound. 🙂

  3. Thanks Kris,

    We need someone who knows what they are talking about (typos forgiven). But your explanation reinforces my opinion that we should just listen and repeat what we hear. At least that is what works for me. Now if I only had a better ear.

  4. Maybe a bit more about the word saeb (short vowel falling tone).

    The reason why it is written like this (แซ่บ) is that it is impossible to write it in Thai like it is pronounced, because Thai grammar does allow you to combine a vowel shortener (อ็) with a tone mark (อ่). Normally you would need both to write is like it’s pronounced.

    Actually the correct spelling according to the RID is แซย without tone mark, which makes sense because according to the tone rules this words already has a falling tone, so it doesn’t make sense to add a mai eek.

    The mai eek was added in an attempt to express the words has a short vowel. But it is not correct spelling (although it is very common).

    It’s correct that mai eek in many words shortens the vowel. This is not so much because of the mai eek, but more because it’s impossible to write the vowel shortener (อ็) together with a tone mark.

  5. Martyn if you want to know what bpùuat sounds like (whether it’s difficult to say or not), paste ปวด into Google Translate and click the sound icon.

  6. An excellent range of words for anyone planning a career as a muay Thai boxer or perhaps someone who is cheating on their Thai partner.

    I assume bpùuat is as difficult to say as bpen?

  7. Here is a funny picture of a sign on a tea plantation on ตาอแม่สลอง where someone picked the wrong definition of ชา from the dictionary. I have made the same kind of mistake countless times.

  8. Rick,

    ท้องอืด /tóng-​èut/ is a good one. It means to have a stuffed feeling in your stomach, better know as “gas”, probably why the woman had a pained expression on her face.

    ปวดท้อง /bpùat-​tóng/ = “stomach ache”

    Another good one is ท้องเสีย /tóng-​sǐa/, literally “broken stomach”, aka “diarrhea”

  9. A phrase I heard recently in a Thai TV advertisement is ท้องอืด.

    It perhaps doesn’t mean ‘stomach-ache’ but something more like ‘stomach cramps’ — in the advertisement, the lady had a pained expression on her face and was making a beeline for the biffy …

  10. Tod,

    I am not sure how many people still study grammar. I know that Americans usually don’t. But by definition native speakers speak correctly, whether they studied grammar or not. Here is an example.

    Let’s say you have a series of adjectives “fat”, “brown”, “healthy”, “16 year old” and we want to use them to describe a dog. How do we know the order in which the adjectives should appear, or are they just random? Can we say “The brown, healthy, 16 year old, fat dog”? I would say that was unacceptable by most native speakers of English.

    But a native speaker would probably come out with the order this way, “The healthy, fat, 16 year old, brown dog.” That “sounds” better. Now how did I know that?

    I could have looked at the grammar rule ( which tells us that the ordering of adjectives is 1.general opinion, 2. specific opinion, 3. size, 4. shape, 5. age, 6. color, 7. nationality, 8. material. And there are lots more rules to go with these. I am willing to guess that not that many readers knew these rules.

    So how do we know the correct order of adjectives if we don’t know the rules. Noam Chompsky tells us that all native speakers of a language have a “deep structure” that tells us the rules of the language. We just know it. (Note: I had to study Chompsky in grad school and didn’t understand him then, and now that he writes mainly about politics, I still don’t understand him).

    As to who speaks correctly (hillbilly from Arkansas or New Yorker, etc.). The answer is that they both do. Whom should you listen to when trying to copy their language? Listen to the person that comes from the place where you will be using the language. If you live in Issan and speak mainly to people from there, then use an Issan person as an example. Live in the north, use a northerner. In the south…you get the picture.

    Good luck at the dentist. I always found that the dentist’s question “Do you want a painkiller?” to be as inane as when the person at the airline check in counter asks “There is room in first class, would you like to be bumped up today?” Doesn’t take a “deep structure” to know what the answer will be.

  11. Having gotten a TON of injections here in my spine for pain, I always heard the words ยาชา or น้ำเยาชา for anesthesia or anesthetic, and the term เข็มฉีดยาชา for an injection of pain killer.

    BTW; the word ชา is the same word for both “tea” and “numb”.. ..

    To me, Thais really like to overuse the words ทน and อดทน. I always equate those two terms to “suck it up/deal with it” rather than “bear thru it, or persevere”. Personally, I ทนไม่ไหว quite a lot, as in “can’t take it”

    I also dunno that I “buy into” the premise that any tone mark can change the vowel length. Thais most definitely learned all the rules pertaining to their language when they were kids, (just like we did when we learned English going to school in the US). That adults can’t remember them doesn’t mean they don’t still use them, they just can’t parrot them back.

    Unfortunately, not all that useful of information as far as forgetting how a word is supposed to be pronounced (via Thai pronunciation rules) and instead “listening” to how a word is said in Thai by a Thai native speaker.

    I mean what Thai accent should I trust for the “real pronunciation” of a particular Thai word; a born-n-bred Bangkokian, a Chiang Mai/Lanna Thai, an Isaan Thai, a Southern Thai, perhaps one who speaks with that ผูดเหน่อ hill billy accent from Supahburi and Ratchaburi or maybe a Chantaburi Surin Thai.

    I am of the mind that if you follow the rules of pronunciation as laid out by the Thais, you’re never gonna be so far off the mark that the Thai you’re talking to won’t be able to understand you..

    But that’s just me. . Good post though, doubly so for me, as I’m off to the dentist this afternoon!!

  12. Thanks Hugh!

    Your “informant” is no doubt right. Far be it from we who are accustomed to English, whose exceptions ทรมาน those who try to learn it, to complain about the occasional quirk in Thai. 🙂

    I have also seen แซบ (without ไม้เอก mái àyk) and I found this in response to a question about “แซบ กับ แซ่บ” on the Royal Institute site:

    แซบ เป็นคำที่มีอยู่ในพจนานุกรมราชบัณฑิตฯ คำวิเศษณ์แปลว่า อร่อย
    แซ่บ, แซ้บแซ่บ เป็นภาษาพูด แปลว่า อร่อยมาก ๆ

    Which I take to mean that แซบ is in the Royal Institute’s Dictionary and means “delicious” and that แซ่บ is spoken Thai that means “really delicious.”

  13. I just got an explanation about why the words แซ่บ /sâep/ and แสบ /sàep/, even though they are spelled with the same vowels are pronounced differently แซ่บ has a shorter vowel sound than แสบ.

    It comes from the fact that the Thai letters for the “s” sound are different, and the fact that there is a “mai ek” tone marker on แซ่บ.

    Usually a tone marker like a “mai ek” has an influence on the tone of a word (it is called a “tone Marker”)depending on the type of beginning consonant, and sometimes the ending one too. What I just learned is that it sometimes has an influence on the vowel length as well (all new to me). My native speaking Thai informant tells me not to try to memorize all those spelling and tone, and now vowel length rules – even Thais don’t know them. Just memorize the way the word is supposed to be said (by listening to it first of course). Sounds like good advice.

  14. Jørgen

    The person using the phrase เจ็บปวดทุกข์ทรมาน must have been in serious do do.

    เจ็บปวด we have already discussed, meaning excruciating pain

    ทุกข์ /túk/ means “suffering” as in the Buddhist teachings that “attachments” cause “suffering”. It also means “misry”

    ทรมาน /tor-​rá~​maan/ (usually combined with ทุกข์ทรมาน) means “tortured”

    So the whole expression probably comes out to means something like “totally miserable”.

  15. Hugh, I keep putting off a visit to the dentist so when I go (soon hopefully) I’ll print these out to see if I can raise a few eyebrows. I have a sensitive mouth so I might not get beyond a few choice English words 😉

  16. The Issan word แซ่บ /sâep/ (delicious, with a hint if it being delicious because it is so spicy) is now basically accepted all over Thailand. An interesting difference between this word and แสบ /sàep/, the stinging pain, is of course the tone (low instead of falling) but even though it is spelled with the same vowel, when spoken แซ่บ /sâep/ sounds a lot shorter than แสบ /sàep/. Maybe a linguist in the audience can tell us why.

    I do know that when the word แซ่บ /sâep/ is spoken it is often accompanied by a smacking of the lips and a little “hmmm” as an indication of how good the food we are talking about tastes.

  17. My expensive crown in the States was at least painless, though not all of my experiences here have been such.

    Would ทรมาน be another good word to use when talking about going to the dentist? Present readers of the site excepted, Khun John! 🙂

    One of the words I didn’t know was แสบ, and that one reminded me of แซบ as in แซบหลายเด้อ for “delicious” or perhaps “deliciously spicy hot” in Isaan. And it even seemed to me that what would be a falling tone in central Thai becomes a normal or even low tone in the Isaan dialect. If such is the case that my ears aren’t deceiving me, that would be appropriate, since truly hot spicy food might be said to แสบ.

  18. Thanks. A couple of new ones there for me. A while back when I was watching a lakorn, the lead female actress expressed that she was “เจ็บปวดทุกข์ทรมาน” in a rather poetic way. I know that Thai people like to combine two words to make one like the เจ็บปวด combination you have already mentioned. However, I’m wondering whether the above expression is 4 words crammed into one to explain the idea of pain and suffering? I cannot remember the scene exactly so I am not able tell whether she was only suffering from “mental pain” or also physically hurt. Therefore I’m curious how native thais understand this expression and would translate it into English.


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