Nam pla (1955)

Douglas G. Wilson douglas at NB.NET
Tue Dec 10 21:28:35 UTC 2002

>... I absolutely think that _nam pla_ is used in English contexts without
>any explanation in a way that suggests it has become naturalized. I see it
>all the time, not just in narrow Thai-cookery use.

My experience is somewhat different. Of course I don't claim that my own
little life includes a broad cross-section of anything much. I can say that
in many hundreds of hours of more-or-less-English conversation with Thai
nationals who use nam pla routinely I've seldom heard it called "nam pla"
(although I think it would usually be obvious that I would understand
this). In English it's "fish sauce", or so seem to think these people.
Today I ran it by a local college-student savant of my acquaintance (the
next Tiger Woods?) who has been raised by a Thai-immigrant mother; he
understands only very little Thai; he says he understands "nam pla" as the
Thai word for what he and his mother would call "fish sauce" in English; he
says that if his mother wanted him to pick up a bottle of nam pla she would
call it "[Thai] fish sauce" probably. [Of course Thais vary just as do
US-ans or New Yorkers or whatever.]

I did a little Google experiment. In order to suppress recipes and culinary
dictionaries as well as non-English contexts I added "some": certainly if
"nam pla" is conventionally used in English then "some nam pla" will occur
too, and probably roughly proportionately. I've compared some near synonyms
and also some analogous words. [In particular, note Sriracha sauce, which
has no good synonym to my knowledge (unlike nam pla = fish sauce): this is
apparently named after a town; I don't know whether it's also a brand name;
it is a distinctive Thai hot sauce which I have ingested in large
quantities; the first "r" is silent.]

Search of Usenet (groups) provides a check on the Web search.

Number of hits (Web; Usenet):

"some nam pla" 4; 6
"some nuoc mam" [Vietnamese equivalent] 6; 6
"some patis" [Filipino eq.] 10; 5
"some tuk trey" [Cambodian eq.] 0; 0
"some sauce de poisson" [French West African ?eq.] 0; 0

"some fish sauce" 82; 60
"some Thai fish sauce" 10; 8
"some Vietnamese fish sauce" 2; 1

"some ketchup" + "some catsup" 990; 1065
"some Worcestershire sauce" 102; 100
"some Tabasco sauce" 212; 162
"some soy sauce" 718; 742
"some Sriracha sauce" 4; 2
"some hot sauce" 728; 535
"some picante sauce" 38; 31
"some Thai hot sauce" 3; 1

Another analogous comparison:

"bottle of nam pla" 4; 5
"bottle of nuoc mam" 10; 8
"bottle of patis" 9; 4
"bottle of Sriracha" 10; 13
"bottle of fish sauce" 57; 29
"bottle of Thai fish sauce" 3; 11
"bottle of Vietnamese fish sauce" 1; 0

[I have checked for alternate spellings, e.g. "nampla", "nam bpla", but I
haven't done so for all the comparisons.]

This sort of search is of course not flawless but I believe the results
have more weight than an isolated person's casual impression (even mine!).
I would say that if one's threshold is set to accept "nam pla" then one
will need to include "picante", "nuoc mam", "patis", and "Sriracha" too,
according to these data. Note that Vietnamese fish sauce seems to be called
by its Vietnamese name proportionally more than is Thai fish sauce called
by its Thai name.

My own opinion BTW (FWLIW!) favors inclusiveness: when in doubt, put it in.
I am very annoyed when I can't find a word in the big dictionary!

-- Doug Wilson

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