Wagglers, winkers and grasshoppers
Ahalf-hearted spring-cleaning session at home during the week came to a welcome halt when I unearthed a long-lost copy of Have Fun With Thai Proverbs collecting dust under a pile of disintegrating paperbacks. Written by Dr Duangtip Somnapan Surintatip, the book is a reminder that there is a common thread to proverbs around the world. As the title suggests, it can be fun putting long-standing expressions into a Thai context.
As I leafed through the book, the dog approached and started licking my toes as is his customary morning greeting, which happened to be quite timely. According to the book, len kap ma ma lia pak (If you play with a dog the dog will lick your mouth) means roughly “familiarity breeds contempt”. My faithful dog showing contempt for Old Crutch? At least he didn’t lick my mouth. Admittedly, the toe-licking is simply a sign the dog wants his daily treat, or possibly, that I have smelly feet.
Animals play a prominent role in Thai proverbs. “Out of the frying pan into the fire” becomes ni sua pa chorakhae
(escape the tiger, meet the crocodile), while “to use a sledgehammer to crack a nut” translates as khi chang chap takataen (ride an elephant to catch a grasshopper.” The crocodile also features in the Thai version of “like teaching your grandmother to suck eggs” with son chorakhae hai wai nam (teaching a crocodile to swim).
Having been guilty of “putting one’s foot in it” on many occasions, it seems my problem was kwaeng thao ha sian (looking for a splinter by waggling one’s foot).
There is also a rather quaint interpretation of “When in Rome do as the Romans”, khao muang ta liu hai liu ta tam (when you enter a town where people wink, wink as they do.”
The ancient tree
There is an intriguing Thai adaptation of “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” which is transformed into mae kae dat yak (it is hard to bend an old tree.) I shall in future prefer to be regarded as an “old tree” rather than an old fart.
However, one tree proverb I hope not to be hearing is mai glai fang (a tree near a bank) or as we know it less happily in the English language, “to have one foot in the grave.”
Parents often find proverbs useful in teaching kids how to make the right choice. But children quickly learn that, wise though a certain proverb may sound, there is invariably another proverb which has the exact opposite advice.
Everyone is familiar with the cautionary “look before you leap”, but then you have “he who hesitates is lost.’’ In a similar vein, “it is better to be safe than sorry” is contradicted by “nothing ventured, nothing gained.” It can be quite confusing.
Another off-quoted proverb is “too many cooks spoil the broth”, but then you have “many hands make light work.”
Again we are taught “the pen is mightier than the sword” but “actions speak louder than words.” Well, you get the idea — you’ve got a 50% chance of making the right decision. Just choose the one that suits your mood at the time.
The kids are alright
It is not surprising that schoolchildren can get a little confused over incompatible proverbs. Some years ago an American teacher gave his class of pre-teens the opening words of a proverb and asked them to finish it off.
Some of the children’s answers actually made more sense than the original proverb as seen below:
If you lie down with a dog you will… stink in the morning.
A penny saved is… not much.
A miss is as good as a... mister. Laugh and the whole world laughs with you, cry and… you’ll have to blow your nose.
Children should be seen and not… spanked or grounded.
Better late than… pregnant. Happy the bride who gets… the presents.
You can’t teach an old dog… new maths.
Know what I mean?
In a recent column on irritating expressions, one that I overlooked was “I mean”, which invariably doesn’t really mean anything. Just about everybody, myself included, uses it in conversation often without even realising it. It’s one of those things that just pops out and has sneakily embedded itself into everyday English. Switch on any TV news programme and it won’t be long before you hear someone coming out with an unnecessary “I mean...” Sometimes it’s the very first thing they say. “I mean” doesn’t really have any point unless it’s explaining that what you have just said previously was incomprehensible, which I admit happens to me quite a lot. It should not be confused with “you know what I mean?” at the end of a sentence which suggests the person you are talking to actually understands what you are saying.
Just filling in
The reality is that “I mean” is one of those very useful filler expressions, used primarily to give the speaker a few extra precious seconds to dream up what to say next, a bit like the equally redundant “at this moment in time”. It’s really a handy substitute for all those stuttering “ums” and “ahhs’,’ “errs’’ and “you know”, which can be quite painful at times. In that respect, perhaps “I mean” does serve a useful function after all… if you know what I mean.