Thai Words in English

Yesterday’s column piqued a friend’s curiosity. In an email he asked what Thai words that I remember have made it into English?

My tour of duty in Southeast Asia was 1972-73, but I quickly remembered one word — nitnoy. It’s online in the Urban Dictionary.

Nitnoy — “A little bit” – from Thai “Nit Noi”. Some soldiers brought back this word from Thailand during the Vietnam War, while on R&R.  (

Unfortunately, that was the only word I could find (either bad memory or bad spelling). But it did trigger some memories.

I took classes in the Thai language through the base education office as my work schedule permitted. They were taught by a young Thai lady who would stand at the blackboard and write combinations of English letters, like th and ch, ask us to pronounce them, the tweak the combinations until she got the right sound for the Thai word she was trying to teach us.

At the first class, the head of the education office had warned us Thai was a tonal language that was very difficult for Westerners to learn. To illustrate his point, he told how he’d worked with the Thai military to organize a training program, and was asked to speak at the first class’s graduation. He wrote out his remarks phonetically in Thai, ending with a flourish, “And if I could work with people with this much talent all the time, I would stay in Thailand until the snow is this deep,” holding out his arm at shoulder level and sitting down to thunderous applause.

Except when he delivered that line there was laughter instead of applause. Lots of laughter. Chagrined, he asked a Thai friend “What did I do wrong this time?”

His friend had to tell him the way he pronounced the word for snow, he actually referred to a certain part of a female dog. “This deep!”


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