Nam pla (1955)

Dennis R. Preston preston at PILOT.MSU.EDU
Tue Dec 10 13:27:29 UTC 2002

Seeing Thai "prik" reminds me after many years of forgetting of Mary
Haas' wonderful old article about accidental obscenities (and how to
avoid them). If I remember correctly, a group of Thai students in the
US became self-conscious when talking about one of their common food
ingredients ("prik" = pepper, chili) because of English-speaking
overhearers (who doubtless heard "prick"). On learning the English
meaning of this unfortunate bilingual homophony, they substituted
"lingam" for "prik" when they were in earshot of English speakers.


A few remarks about these Thai words, according to my naive notions.

The adjective or attributive follows the modified noun, the reverse of the
usual order in English.

"Nam" = "water", also "juice", "liquid", etc. "Pla" = "fish". Thus "nam
pla" = literally "fish juice/sauce". I believe "nam pla" in Thai now refers
to a variety of salty sauces, some of which may not actually be from fish.
[Cf. English "ketchup" which also etymologically once meant more or less
"fish sauce".]

Generally a type of fish X in Thai is named "pla X" = "X fish", so "pla
soi" is the "soi" fish (I don't know whether this word "soi" is simply the
fish's name or whether it also has some other meaning: e.g., cf. "daeng" =
"red", "pla daeng" = "red snapper"). Google search identifies pla soi =
Jullien's mud carp.

If you like *hot* pepper, you can ask for prik ki nu: "prik" =
"pepper"/"chili", "ki" = "shit", "nu" = "mouse", thus "mouse shit pepper",
a little pepper which resembles a mouse dropping. An appetizing
appellation? Conventional in Thai, apparently. Caution is advised in
ordering these; your Thai chef may have a mordant sense of humor.

It is my impression that neither "nam pla" nor "prik ki nu" qualifies as an
English word. Thai persons of my acquaintance virtually always have
referred to nam pla as "fish sauce" when speaking English. The little
mouse-dropping peppers are conventionally called "birdseye" peppers/chilis
in English, I believe. "Pad Thai" OTOH refers to a specific and nowadays
conventional dish in the US (AFAIK), and I believe this is just as English
a word as "sukiyaki" or "gyros" for example. Of course I concede that these
things are not black-and-white.

-- Doug Wilson

Dennis R. Preston
Professor of Linguistics
Department of Linguistics and Languages
740 Wells Hall A
Michigan State University
East Lansing, MI 48824-1027 USA
Office - (517) 353-0740
Fax - (517) 432-2736

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