The Thai language has been changing constantly over the past decade. You say one word in Thai and it can mean a different thing to the listener.
This is because several Thai words are pronounced and spelled identically but have entirely different meanings. It is also common for Thai people to use the same word to describe other things or ideas.
So, how do you make sure that you interpret the word correctly? The simple answer is “Context”.
Thai language relies heavily on the situation where the word is being used at the moment of speaking. Tone and intention of the speaker are crucial elements which help the listener to form the right meaning. The Thai language is context based.
As a language learner, you are not expected to know all the multiple meanings of one word. However, it will come in handy when you want to express your thoughts like a Thai native speaker.
With this in mind, here are the most ubiquitous Thai words which have multiple meanings.
The first meanings of Kao (เขา) are pronouns he / him / she / her. Thai people use this pronoun frequently as a subject and object of the sentence.
เขามีน้องสาว 2 คน
(kao mee nong saao song kon)
“He/she has 2 younger sisters.”
(chan jer kao meuua waan nee)
“I saw him/her yesterday.”
Thai people add “kong” (ของ) before the pronoun like in the sample “kong kao” (ของเขา) for possessive pronoun his or her.
(nee keu baan kong kao)
“This is his/her house.”
As Kao refers to a person of an unspecified sex, the speaker and listener are assumed to know the person whom they are talking about to establish the meaningful conversation.
Another meaning of the word Kao is a mountain or a hill.
(poo kao look nee yai maak)
“This mountain is huge.”
Kao in the Thai language can also refer to an animal’s horns.
(gwaang dtuua nee mee kao tee suuay jing jing)
“The deer has very beautiful horns.”
In addition, Thai people also use the phrase “suuam kao” (สวมเขา) to describe a situation when someone is unknowingly being cheated on.
(kao suuam kao hai chan)
“He is cheating on me.”
(chan took suuam kao)
“I am cheated on.”
In Thai, male speakers refer to themselves as pom (ผม) which means the English pronouns I, me, and my. A male foreigner can use Pom as well when talking to Thai people.
(pom poot paa-saa tai daai nít noi)
“I can speak Thai a little bit.”
(koiie rak pom reu bplao)
“Do you ever love me?”
(baan pom yoo grung tep)
“My house is in Bangkok.”
Another meaning of pom is a person’s hair in Thai.
(pom chop poo ying pom san)
“I like a girl with short hair.”
(kun roo jak raan dtat pom taew nee baang mai)
“Do you know any barber shops nearby?”
The first meaning of the Thai word taa (ตา) is eyes.
(kun jep dtaa mai)
“Did your eyes hurt?”
Another common meaning of taa is grandfather.
(dtaa ter sa-baai dee mai)
“How is your grandfather doing?”
In Thai, a mother’s father is called Taa (ตา) while a father’s father is called Poo (ปู่). In addition, Thai people use the word Por taa (พ่อตา) to refer to one’s father-in-law.
In Thai, the word Taa also means one’s turn to play something.
(chan kor len dtaa dtor bpai na)
“Can I play the next round?”
The Thai word Fan (ฟัน) basically means teeth.
(dek dek yaa leum bpraeng fan gon non na)
“Kids, don’t forget to brush your teeth before going to bed.”
In Thai, we have a phrase ‘taa tor taa fan tor fan’ (ตาต่อตาฟันต่อฟัน) which is translated to ‘It is an eye for an eye.’ in English.
(pom mai gluua kao rok dtaa dtor dtaa fan dtor fan)
“I’m not scared of him. It’s an eye for an eye.”
If fan is used as a verb in Thai, it means to cut or slash something.
(wan nee kao bpai fan dton mai lang baan maa)
“He cut down a tree behind the house today.”
Another meaning of fan as a verb is to be scammed by a seller. This is used in a situation when you are scammed to pay a higher price than a normal market price.
(seuua raan nee paeng maak chan took fan maa laew)
“This clothes shop is really expensive. I was scammed before.”
The first meaning of the Thai word Kaek (แขก) is a guest or visitor.
(kaek kong kun maa teung laew)
“Your guest has arrived.”
Kaek is also commonly used to refer to people who are from South Asia and Middle East, mostly Indian people. Thai people collectively call them Kaek.
(yaan nee mee kaek aa-sai yoo yuh)
“This area has many Indian people living there.”
Not only do Thai people have a specific word to call people from South Asia and Middle East countries, they also have a word used to call people from western countries. We have talked about that word here.
The word gluuay (กล้วย) simply means a banana in Thai
(pom taan gluuay bpen aa-haan chao tuk wan)
“I have a banana for breakfast every day.”
In Thailand, there are over 100 varieties of banana. Each one is called differently. If you don’t know its specific name, you can refer to it as just gluuay.
We have a snack named Gluuay Kaek which means a fried banana.
However, if you repeat the word gluuay twice, it means something that is easy or simple.
(riian paa-saa tai bpen reuuang gluuay gluuay)
“Learning the Thai language is an easy task.”
Note that ๆ is a special Thai symbol used to indicate the repetition of the previous word when spoken to emphasize the meaning.
Gluuay in the second meaning is a short form of the proverb "bplok gluuay kao bpaak” (ปลอกกล้วยเข้าปาก) which mean something that is easy to achieve, similar to how one can easily remove a banana peel. It’s equivalent to the English proverb “A piece of cake”.
Normally, the word Gaeng (แกง) means curry, soup or stew in Thai.
(chan chop gin gaeng som)
“I like to eat Thai sour curry.”
In Thailand, the majority of people eat rice with curry in almost every meal. If you are eating out in a roadside vendor, you will notice that many shops sell “kaao raat gaeng” (ข้าวราดแกง ) which directly translates to rice on top with curry. It costs around 1$ to 2$.
The term Gaeng is recently used as a slang which means ‘to fool or deceive someone’.
(ter yaa maa gaeng chan)
“Don’t you fool me!”
Gaeng (แกง) derives from the word Glaeng (แกล้ง) which means to tease, irritate or annoy in Thai because they have similar pronunciations.
The extreme version of this term is “gaeng mor yai” (แกงหม้อใหญ่) used to describe how someone is completely deceived without him/her being suspicious.
(ter dohn gaeng mor yai laew ka)
“You are deceived big time.”
Normally, Lam Yai (ลำไย) is the name of a Thai fruit, longan. Longan is so sweet that some say it will make your throat hurt if you overeat it.
(pom mai chop gin lam-yai)
“I don’t like eating longan.”
Thai youngsters recently use this term Lam Yai to describe the feeling when they are annoyed with something or someone’s action.
(ter lam-yai maak chan mai wai laew na)
“She is so annoying. I couldn’t stand it anymore.”
The term also refers to a person who lacks a sense of haste or urgency.
(muua lam-yai yoo nan lae kon eun kao bpai glai laew)
“You are so slow. Others are already ahead of you.”
The reason being that the pronunciation of Lam Yai is similar to Ram Kaan (รำคาญ) which is the original word for annoying and annoyed in Thai.
So, lam yai is a less aggressive way of letting someone know that they annoy you instead of directly using ram kaan.
The term nok (นก) is used to refer to an unspecified type of bird in Thai.
(mee nok laai dtuua gor yoo bon ging mai)
“There are many birds on the tree branch.”
However, nok has another meaning. Thai people use the term nok to describe when someone is turned down by their crush or misses his/her chance to move things forward.
(kao mee kon tee chop yoo laew chan nok loiie tee nee)
“He likes someone else. I missed my chance already.”
Although this term is more common with people in the young generation and on social media in Thailand, you can use it with close friends.
nok dtor (นกต่อ) is another phrase that Thai people to describe a person who misleads or lures someone else into a trap.
(kao tam ngaan bpen nok dtor hai dtam-ruuat)
“He works as a spy for the police.”
The word Kwaai (ควาย) basically means a buffalo.
(sa-mai gon por chan chai kwaai taai naa)
“In the past, my dad used the buffalo to plow the rice fields.”
The word Kwaai is used as a swear word in Thailand which mean stupid or dump. Thai people use this word to describe someone who is stupid in their opinion.
(tam-mai gae teung yang bpen kwaai hai man lok chai)
“Why are you so dump and let him use you like this?”
The reason behind the negative meaning of Kwaai is because Thai parents often scare their children that if they do not study hard enough, they will end up like a buffalo in the rice fields, doing the labour work.
The term tay (เท) is a verb in Thai which means to pour something.
(dìieow pom tay naam hai kun eng)
“Let me pour you a glass of water.”
Another Thai phrase for the term tay is tay naam tay taa (เทน้ำเทท่า). It means to sell something out really well, similar to when you pour the water out of a jar.
(raan nee kaai dee tay naam tay taa)
“This shop sells out really fast.”
Thai people also use the phrase Tay jai (เทใจ) to describe a situation when you like someone so much that you give it all you have including your heart.
(chan tay jai hai kao mot laew)
“I give all my heart to him.”
Another meaning of the word tay is to be dumped. This term is used when you are dumped by someone you like, or when you are left hanging by someone.
(kao mai dtop kor kwaam chan loiie kong ja dohn tay laew la)
“He didn’t reply to my text at all. I guessed I just got dumped.”
(gae tay chan meuua wan sao)
“You left me hanging on saturday.”
This meaning was recently added and used among close friends and Thai youngsters.
Since these multiple meanings rely mainly on the context of when, where, and by whom they are used, the best way of learning them is using these words in a conversation when possible.
Practicing them with your friends or recording the meaning in the Vocab.chat web app is another helpful way for a language learner to understand the underlying meanings of these words.