Thai Language Thai Culture: So Many Excuses

Thai Language

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So Many Excuses…

The English phrase “excuse me” has lots of uses, from asking to leave the dinner table, to apologizing for knocking someone down on the street, to interrupting someone, to asking for forgiveness for a wrong doing. “Excuse me” is usually translated into Thai as ขอโทษ /kǒr-​tôht/, literally “I ask for” or “I beg for” “punishment”. But, as always seems to happen when we go to translate anything, there is more to the story.

Here are just six different examples of how the English term “excuse me” could be translated into Thai:

ขอโทษ /kǒr-​tôht/
ขออภัย /kǒr-​à~​pai/
ขอประทานโทษ /kŏr bprà-taan tôht/
ขออนุญาต /kǒr à-​nú-​yâat/
ขอตัว /kǒr-​dtua/
โทษที /tôht-sà-tee/

They all have their different uses but before we get into individual examples, let’s talk about how Thais would use the concept of “excuse me”. Why? Because sometimes it is different from how we’d say “excuse me” in English. For example, if we are at a restaurant in the West and want to attract the attention of a waiter, we might say “excuse me” and do a little wave. But if you said ขอโทษ /kǒr-​tôht/ to a wait person in Thailand you might be misunderstood.

The term for “excuse me” in Thailand is used when you have done something wrong, or you are putting a person out, or inconveniencing someone. You’re asking for punishment, right? So if you say ขอโทษ /kǒr-​tôht/ to a wait person (who are just doing their job), he/she might think you have done something wrong and are saying you are sorry for doing it. In the very least, it would confuse them.


A better way to get attention at a restaurant is to simply say น้อง /nóng/ “little sibling”, หนู /nǒo/ “little one (mouse)”, ขอเมนูหน่อย /kǒr may-​noo nòi/ “may I have the menu please?”, or ขอสั่งอาหารหน่อย ​/kǒ sàng aa-​hǎan nòi/ “may I order please?”

Anecdote alert: The best example of the correct use of “excuse me” in Thailand comes from my favorite sociologists, “The Simpsons”. In one episode a gang of Japanese Yakuzas are having a pitched battle outside the Simpsons’ house when the chief Yakuza comes crashing through the kitchen window. He gets up, brushes himself off, bows deeply to the startled Simpsons, says “For-giv-i-ness preez”, and then runs back into battle. If you ever have a question about when to use the “excuse me” concept to ask for forgiveness in Thailand, think of this Simpsons episode and you can’t go wrong.

Note: The English term “I am sorry” can sometimes mean “excuse me” like when you knock a cup of tea out of someone’s hands. The term “I am sorry” is translated into Thai as เสียใจ /sǐa-​jai/. But it is more like the “I am sorry” you say when you hear that your friend’s girlfriend just ran away with his brother. เสียใจมาก มาก /sǐa-​jai mâak mâak / is “I’m really, really sorry (that you lost your girl friend)”. You don’t say “excuse me” in this case. That is, unless you’re the guy she ran away with!

Here is how the various Thai translations for “excuse me” can be used:

ขอโทษ /kǒr-​tôht/
This is the general, all purpose term for “excuse me”. It is used in situations where you have either done something wrong (shot beer out of your nose and all over you friend after hearing a funny joke), put someone at an inconvenience (dropped your cell phone into your inlaw’s bowl of noodles), or are apologizing for a wrongdoing (you crashed into someones new SUV).

ผมชนรถ SUV ของคุณ ขอโทษมาก มาก
pŏm chon rót SUV kŏng kun kŏr tôht mâak mâak
I am very very sorry I crashed into your SUV.

ขออภัย /kǒr-​à~​pai/ or อภัย /à~​pai/
This means “forgiveness” much like the Yakuza’s “for-giv-i-ness preez”. It is a more formal (not often heard), variation on “excuse me”. You’ll often see it written on a temporary road sign apologizing for road construction.

ขออภัย กำลังก่อสร้าง
kŏr a-pai gam-lang gòr sâang
Under construction – Our apologies.

ขอประทานโทษ /kŏr bprà-taan tôht/
This is the really formal way to say “excuse me.” Using this expression doesn’t mean you are more sorry than if you used the others. It just means that the one you are apologizing to could make big problems for you, so you are hedging your bets by being super polite. A really good time to use it is when you step on the governor’s foot.

kŏr bprà-taan tôht tâan pôo wâa
Excuse me, I am really sorry Mister Governor.

ขออนุญาต /kǒr à-​nú-​yâat/
The word อนุญาต /à-​nú-​yâat/ means “permission”. You might use it if you are at someone’s house and want to use their computer to check your email (you haven’t bought an iPhone yet).

kŏr a-nú-yâat chái kom kŏng kun
Excuse me. May I use your computer?

ขอตัว /kǒr-​dtua/
This is a rather informal way of asking permission to leave (the dinner table, a meeting, an assignation).

kŏr dtua dtông glàp bâan reo
If you will excuse me, I have to leave early.

โทษที /tôht-sà-tee/ and sometimes /tôht-tee/
This is an informal abbreviation of the more general ขอโทษ /kǒr-​tôht/ and is usually used alone. You’d bring it into play if you stepped on a taxi driver’s foot instead of the governor’s.


Faux Pas…

For those who find it difficult to speak Thai because of a reluctance to make mistakes, I have to admit that I make mistakes all the time too; sometimes woozies. But making mistakes is often the best way to learn a foreign language.

Just yesterday I made a big woozy. I was at my favorite food court and went to my Duck-Noodle shop, mainly because it’s next to the best coconut milk ice cream maker in Chiang Mai. But when I arrived the ice cream guy wasn’t there anymore. As happens with so many small shops, he was just gone.

Quite sadly, I asked the Duck-Noodle guy:

kon kăai ai-sà-greem yòo năi
Where is the ice cream guy?

The Duck-Noodle guy replies:

kăo mâi yòo
He’s not here.

To which I asked:

ôh kăo jéng rĕu
Wow, did he go out of business (bankrupt)?

That’s when the Duck-Noodle guy started stuttering and blushing and turned away from me. And then I hear my wife in the back stuttering and clearing her throat (usually the signal that I have made another of my infamous faux pas).

Quickly Pikun said:

เขาเลิกขาย ใช่มั้ย
kăo lêrk kăai · châi máai
He stopped selling, right?

And the Duck-Noodle guy, recovering, answered:

ครับ เขาเลิกขาย
kráp · kăo lêrk kăai
Right, he stopped selling.

It turns out that the word I thought meant “out of business”, “busted”, or “bankrupt”, เจ๊ง /jéng/, (hey, it’s in the dictionary), can be a very strong put-down of a person’s business acumen. It can mean that he was quite the bum, therefor stupid enough to lose his business (but it’s not what I meant to say). And that is why the Duck-Noodle guy was so startled when I ask him that question using เจ๊ง /jéng/ and why Pikun jumped in to help me save my face. I treated this experience as a lesson to be careful using dictionary definitions alone, without social context.

Later Pikun related the story to neighbors and a big laugh was had by all. Each one telling me, “no, you can’t say that.” One added “I wish I could have seen that duck-noodle guy’s face”, as she slapped her thigh, pointing at me and belly laughing. I guess it’s just another of my faux pas anecdotes that will be told again and again. But I’m used to it now as I have made so many of them!

BTW: เจ๊ง /jéng/ can be used in a joking way. For instance, after a hard night of playing poker you might say:

ผมเจ๊งหมดตัว (หมดตูด) แล้ว กลับบ้านดีกว่า
pǒm jéng-​mòt-​dtua (mòt dtòot) láew glàp bâan dee-​gwàa
I’m busted (or to be really crass – I’ve lost my ass). Better go home.

In that context เจ๊ง /jéng/ would be okay, though you might want to be careful if you are playing poker with the governor (of course).

Don’t be afraid to make mistakes. The bigger gaffs make the better stories and making people belly laugh is always good karma.

Note in passing…

I am saddened to mark the passing of a good friend and mentor Professor Jimmy G. Harris (1930-2012). Jimmy Harris is a well-respected phonetician of the Thai language and much of what I know about how the sounds of Thai are made come from Jimmy’s long-time studies and research. Jimmy was quite an accomplished guy, fathering six children, serving in the Marine Corps during the Korean conflict, working in many foreign countries, being part of the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) team that won the Nobel Prize in 1981 for their work with refugees, and winning a number of commendations for his work with the U.S. Peace Corps and other international organizations.

Jimmy’s love included Native American languages, sticking cameras down people’s throats to see how sounds are made, and Thailand. Just a few years ago he was in my living room in Chiang Mai showing me throat pictures he had just taken, while explaining how Thais make Glottal Stops. It was interesting after-dinner conversation (you had to be there).

Our hearts go out to lovely Hiroko, who survived the bombing of Hiroshima to live a long and eventful life with Jimmy, and to all his children. Rest in Peace Jimmy. We’ll miss you.

Hugh Leong
Retire 2 Thailand
Retire 2 Thailand: Blog
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