Bangkok Post

Wag­glers, winkers and grasshop­pers

- Roger Crutch­ley Con­tact Post­Script via email at old­crutch@hot­mail.com Lifestyle · Books · Morocco · Panama · Rome · When in Rome · When in Rome

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.”

Prover­bial para­dox

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.

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