All Hell broke loose / นรกแตก

The other day, my wife uttered this phrase, and when she explained it to me, I realized that the Thai นรกแตก is basically exactly the same expression as the English “all hell broke loose.”

In Thai, แตก means “break,” specifically with the implication of shattering, bursting, and with stuff spilling out. Glasses break (แก้วแตก), bags burst (ถุงแตก), and you can bust your head open (หัวแตก). In contrast, breaking pencils or body parts is หัก, as in แขนหัก.

And of course, นรก means Hell.

So the mental picture in both languages is the gates of Hell bursting open and all sorts of mayhem flooding forth. Both languages use the expression to describe the point in time when something orderly falls into chaos, perhaps in an unsalvageable way.

(Incidentally, my professional life has changed quite a bit recently, and nowadays, I am working exclusively with non-Thai-speaking foreigners. So it is now very difficult for me to find sources of information for this blog. Nevertheless I shall continue to post things as I come across them.)

Wednesday, April 9, 2008 at 8:51 pm 5 comments

Business Thai Digest: Feb 6, 2008

Here are the new terms in the business Thai cheat sheet.

English Thai
Efficient ประสิทธิภาพ
Propose เสนอ
Responsible รับผิดชอบ
Success สำเร็จ

I don’t have much to say about this week’s words, except that I have a suspicious feeling that Thai speakers use the word ประสิทธิภาพ (efficient) a little more often than English speakers. I’ve heard Thai speakers use that word when I would have said “quality” (คุณภาพ). However, I suspect this may be a characteristic of the individuals I know, or even confirmation bias in myself.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008 at 8:36 pm 1 comment

The shocking truth: ใจ doesn’t mean “heart”!

The word ใจ (“jai”) is commonly misunderstood. People say that ใจ means “heart.” That is simplistic and incorrect. If anything, ใจ really means “mind.”

Admittedly, few words in any language always “mean something.” Context influences meaning. Consider รถ, which means “car,” right? Not exactly. รถ means “car” sometimes. Generally, รถ means “vehicle,” which is obvious when you consider these words: รถเข็น รถม้า รถตู้ รถถัง รถพ่วง รถไฟ (in English: cart, carriage, van, tank, semi, and train).

One way to think about it is that the word รถ means “car,” but the prefix รถ means “vehicle.” ใจ is no different, but I want to correct the ใจ/heart misunderstanding for two reasons:

  1. It’s wrong.
  2. It contributes to the bad myth that Thai is a primitive language or that Thai people are juvenile.

Let’s approach this objectively: count ใจ-words and see what the data reveals. In the tables below, the first column is the Thai word; the second column is the basic English translation; and the third column makes the case for the word if it is unclear, either by noting the literal translation or by citing similar English expressions.

The Case For “Mind”

All these ใจ-words relate to the concept of the mind, thought, or consciousness.

Thai Translation Notes
เข้าใจ Understand Literally, “enter mind”
จิตใจ Thoughts, consciousness
รู้ใจ Intimate To know one’s mind
ตั้งใจ Intend Literally, “put mind”; “Set one’s mind [to something]“
ตัดสินใจ Decide “Make up your mind”
เกรงใจ To mind someone To be considerate
พอใจ Satisfied To get what you have in mind
ใจร้อน Hot-headed, eager Literally, “hot mind”
ใจเย็น Cool-headed, level-headed Literally “cool mind.” (Not “cold-hearted”)
เปลี่ยนใจ Change one’s mind Literally, “change mind”
น้ำใจ Thoughtfulness
แปลกใจ Surprising Thought-provoking
ใส่ใจ Careful Or, “mindful”
ใจอ่อน Yielding Literally, “soft mind”
เอาแต่ใจตัว Determined “Headstrong”

The Case for “Heart”

All these ใจ-words clearly relate to the concept of the heart.

Thai Translation Notes
หัวใจ Heart The blood-pumping organ
ตกใจ Startled “My heart skipped a beat”
เสียใจ Saddening “Broken-hearted”
ดวงใจ Sweetheart
ใจดี Nice “Kind-hearted”
ใจดำ Cruel “Black-hearted” (ostensibly)
หมดใจ Wholeheartedly
ใจร้าย Mean “Heartless” (This is ร้าย, not ไร้; so no literal translation)
เจ็บใจ Crushed “Heartbroken”
กำลังใจ Courage หมดกำลังใจ means “disheartened”

Although I categorized it as a heart-word, I take issue with ใจดำ. It means “cruel,” but nobody actually says “black-hearted” in English. We say “cold-hearted.” When you translate “cold-hearted” literally, a Thai speaker will misunderstand you, hearing “level-headed.” Nonetheless, since “black-hearted” is understandable in English, it goes in.

The Case for Neither

These examples do not clearly contribute to the heart/mind debate. Some strike me as a little mind-like, but the correlation is not strong enough.

Thai Translation Notes
ดีใจ Pleased
สนใจ Interested
หายใจ Breathe
ไว้ใจ Trust Maybe literally “to leave your mind” with someone with someone?
ประทับใจ Impressed
จริงใจ Sincere Maybe literally “true heart” but that’s a stretch. I would say “straight shooter.”
แน่ใจ Confident Maybe literally “sure mind”?
ภูมิใจ Proud
ตามใจ Assent “To go along [with someone]“
น้อยใจ Sensitive Or “offended”

Also note that some native Thai speakers (even educated ones) assert that their mind feels to them physically embodied in the center of their chests. But this fact contributes to neither the mind nor the heart argument. It only confirms that the concepts of mind and heart overlap for Thai speakers (as they do for English speakers). So this fact, while interesting, is not relevant to this analysis.


It’s pretty clear that most ใจ-words do not evoke the heart meaning, although some do indeed. Many seem connected to the English “mind” concept, directly or indirectly. Therefore, the argument that “ใจ means ‘heart’” is not compelling.

(We did not consider each word’s frequency of use, but the results would likely not change since each type of ใจ-word is in extremely common usage.)

So we have a convincing primary conclusion: That ใจ means “heart” is incorrect—it’s is a misleading oversimplification.

And we have a reasonable secondary conclusion: If there is one word that ใจ does mean, that word is “mind.”

Monday, February 4, 2008 at 8:00 am 7 comments

Spine / สัน

Thai and English share the same concept of a spine. สัน means “spine,” for men and for books.

English speakers understand “spine” alone to mean the backbone. But in Thai, that is กระดูกสันหลัง—so it’s not a perfect match with English, but still easy to remember.

The spine of a book is สันหนังสือ (literally, “book spine”), correlating with English very closely.

Just remember that the spines (little sharp things) on porcupines and sea urchins are not the same word in Thai. That is a different concept with different words in each language.

Update February 4, 2008: Thanks to Rikker for pointing out in the comments that “ridge” is likely the best meaning for สัน. So go ahead and remember “spine” as a mnemonic for backbones and books; but to take it further, “ridge” is better for understanding.

Friday, February 1, 2008 at 8:42 pm 3 comments

Business Thai Digest: Jan 30, 2008

The business Thai page has been up since Sunday, and has its first three entries, mostly chosen at random:

English Thai
Able สามารถ
Experience ประสบการณ์
Project โครงการ

Edit 1 February, 2008: Added the list of words here since that is the point of a digest.

I’d like to discuss สามารถ (“capable,” or “able”). Informal Thai might use ทำได้ or ทำไม่ได้ (you can substitute ทำ for any other verb). In a more formal setting, you will hear ไม่สามารถทำได้. (Note, the words สามารถ and ได้ almost always come in pairs.)

There are already some things to notice:

  • Business Thai, like business English, tends to be loquacious and elegant-sounding without actually contributing additional meaning. Sorry. I mean people talk more, but they say less. That seems like a problem, but it’s an advantage. Since the density of useful information is lower in business Thai, a foreigner can pick up the meaning even if he misses a word here or there.
  • Business Thai, like business English, also uses a larger vocabulary than informal Thai—another advantage. More vocabulary means more precision, and so you can say what you mean with less ambiguity and misunderstanding. If I say ผมทำไม่ได้ then I can’t do it—maybe I lack the talent, or maybe it’s illegal—who knows? But if I say ผมไม่สามารถทำได้ then I am incapable of doing it. The latter statement is more precise and clear.

These two points seem contradictory, but they are not. Often in a professional setting, people make rambling statements with plenty of specificity to sugar-coat bad news or to conceal their ignorance. But specificity itself is not bad, just the dishonest rambling.

Another great use for สามารถ is that you can use it to say “competent” and “incompetent,” two crucial words when discussing staff, partners, managers, employees, distributors, or whomever. เขามีความสามารถมาก translates to, “he is very competent.” เขาไร้ความสามารถมาก translates to “he is very incompetent.”

Wednesday, January 30, 2008 at 2:04 pm Leave a comment

New section: Business Thai

I added a new page on the blog: Business Thai. It will be a short cheat sheet with the most helpful vocabulary for a business or professional setting. You can bookmark, print, or even memorize it.

I’ve debated whether to include a plain old vocabulary component to this blog. There are already plenty online resources for looking words up. I am also uninterested in a word-a-day format for the blog.

On the other hand, much of my exposure to Thai is in a business setting, and I often feel liberated or empowered when I learn a new word or phrase. I want a way to share this feeling with others. Most recently, I felt frustrated at the latest BarCamp (a kind of software conference). I realized that an English-language presentation on business Thai would have gone over extremely well, but I was unprepared to deliver something like that on the spot.

Therefore, I will address the situation in this way: I set up a new page, Business Thai, where I will (for now) maintain a table of words, adding to the list as I think of them (or as readers suggest them). To help us through the Hell that is hump day, I will post to the blog a weekly digest summarizing the new additions every Wednesday.

I am not aiming for comprehensiveness, because that would be just a dictionary, and I don’t want a dictionary. Instead, I want the cheet sheet that you can print or memorize to get the most bang for your buck. Most foreign professionals operating in Thailand quickly realize that their speaking Thai is discouraged; however, Thai is still spoken all the time and you want to be prepared for that.

Sunday, January 27, 2008 at 10:40 pm Leave a comment

Corner of mouth / มุมปาก

Well, I have to get started posting again. I lost my creative spark ever since I was cruelly and illegally stifled by Twentieth Century Fox. Don’t they know this is the twenty-first century?

Yesterday I discovered that Thai speakers and Anglophones have the same expression for that place on the sides of your mouth where mustard always gets stuck: the corner of your mouth, or มุมปาก.

English also has the “corner of the eye,” but I do not see such a phrase (มุมตา) used in Thai as much on the Internet, although I suspect it would be recognizable by many Thai speakers.

Wednesday, January 23, 2008 at 2:16 pm 1 comment

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