The animal instinct of insults
A look at Thai slang reveals lizards, buffalo and dogs are here, there and everywhere
Last week saw the rounding up and hauling away of unsavoury animals from the middle of Bangkok and no, that doesn't mean a coup nor a police raid on Nana Plaza. Lizards, dear reader … lizards.
Lumpini Park's famed monitor lizards are once again being captured, bagged and sent, so officials claim, to "a wildlife breeding centre near Ratchaburi". That sounds suspiciously like code for "factory that processes meat for Chinese dumplings", doesn't it?
The official reason is there are more than 400 Asian monitor lizards in the 60 hectares of Lumpini Park and that's too many, according to the Bangkok Metropolitan Administration that looks after the park.
These lizards grow up to three metres long and resemble mini-dinosaurs. They have been scaring early-morning joggers, weekend families and -- the most timid group of all -- bicyclists. The BMA claims they have received complaints from cyclists just mortified to find monitor lizards infringing on their bike lanes! The nerve of them!
See this is the problem that arises when we designate areas for parkland rather than condos and shopping centres. Wildlife springs up in the greenery and ponds, including Thailand's famous giant monitor lizards who propagate like crazy.
I do not frequent Lumpini Park, being in a busy part of the city and besides, there are way too many monitor lizards and timorous cyclists. I am more of a Rama IX Park man myself.
We too have monitor lizards over there. I have seen the occasional one crawling along the running path in the early morning, though I reacted in a different manner to the Lumpini Park cyclists. Instead of squealing and raising my arms in shock (thus crashing the bike), I merely stepped around the creature and continued my run. Sensible, I know, but it does protect the Rama IX Park water lizards from ending up in Chinese dumplings like their Lumpini brethren.
This is not the first time we've had a lizard crackdown.
Five years ago Lumpini Park officials rounded up 50 of the lizards in another highly publicised event. It occurred as a result of one lizard falling out of a tree, striking a woman in the face and causing her to have stitches. Well at least somebody got hurt in that one.
Why all the fuss? A visitor to Thailand may be wondering this. Last Tuesday, as officials started capturing their quota of 40 lizards, there was a huge number of Thai media at the event … on a par with any appearance by the prime minister or Miss Thailand. To capture measly lizards?
Well, it's a little more than that.
You see, here in Thailand this humble reptile that's walked the earth for 300 million years is at the heart of one of the worst things you can call a Thai.
Over in Western culture we use all manner of different animals as disparaging remarks, such as "dog", "ass", "snake" and "pig". "Animal" even.
It is testament to the power of the spoken word that we can become furious just by the mention of an animal's name. Imagine a drunken stranger at Nana Plaza bumping into you then calling you an "animal", or a "dog" or …
… a "monitor lizard".
Did the last one raise your hackles? Probably not, if you were born outside Thailand. Yet for 68 million Thais, being called a "monitor lizard" is enough to have them reaching for the pistol shoved discreetly down their underwear.
How interesting is that? I can see that a monitor lizard isn't the most attractive animal on the planet, but there are far uglier animals: spiders and scorpions, for example, or those hideous shih tzu dogs you see on leashes. A monitor lizard is a reptile, and even in the English language being called a reptile isn't nice. But Thais plucked one animal from that genus and hate it with a vengeance. Calling a Thai a "monitor lizard" can shorten your life to oh, as long as it takes for the bullet to explode in your brain and that gun to go back into the underpants.
The Thai word for "monitor lizard" sounds exactly the same as "here" in English, spoken as if you are stressing the word.
Thus, calling the class roll can make for hilarious antics if Thai students are instructed to shout out "Here" as students do back home. "You are here!" will reduce any schoolboy to hysterics. Get it? "You are a monitor lizard!" Cue canned laughter and a boingggggg or two.
This word … here … is so offensive it is all but banned in the broadcast media.
In fact the Thais have invented a new word for the animal to avoid using the H-word. It's tua ngern tua tong, translated as a "silver thing, gold thing", based on the lizard's colour, and taking all the fun out of hurling insults.
In fact bigwigs were so determined to stop Thais using the H-word that one high-ranking official publically suggested that the H-word should be changed to a polite Thai female name.
The genus for monitor lizard is Varanus salvator, sounding a little like the beautiful Thai name Voranoot. His flippant comment stuck, and to this day many Thais call the ugly lizard by this name, which is about as ridiculous as changing the name of "monitor lizard" to "Veronica" or "Delilah".
This is the real reason why Thais want the monitor lizards out of Lumpini Park so desperately, not because of the rapid promulgation of the species.
Please don't go using this newfound Thai vocabulary on anybody who gets your goat (… goat! Another animal!). It is truly dangerous to call any Thai a monitor lizard.
It is one of the "big three" animals Thais use to chastise others. If you're stupid, you are a "buffalo" or khwai, which kind of baffled me at first because I never assumed a buffalo to be any more stupid than, say, a goat or a sheep. In fact I like buffalo; they are sturdy hard-working animals who are loyal and taste good in a stir-fry with oyster sauce.
The other big bad one is a dog, or ma spoken with a rising tone. There's a wonderful Thai idiom where they say they will "perform surgery to remove the dog from your mouth", meaning you are saying really obnoxious things.
Other animals pop up in the Thai language as insults. You are a "cobra" if you swap allegiances. You're a "pig" if you weigh more than 60kg (ie, morbidly obese in Thailand).
You are an old man with "the head of a snake" if you hang around bars trying to pick up girls a third your age. You're a "gourami fish" if you're a man with a great physique but ugly as sin, and you're a "gibbon" if you're a woman -- a derogatory term used by transgenders for the sex they want so much to resemble.
Readers of this column who frequent Nana Plaza and Soi Cowboy may be surprised to learn there is no sign of "butterfly" on this list.
That's because the Thai language has no such analogy to describe a person who flits from partner to partner. Nor does English, by the way. Three cheers to those Nana Plaza workers who managed to come up with an idiom used exclusively in seedy bars in inner-city Bangkok; the very same girls who fawn over their drunken clientele with broken English.
And what is the Thai word for "drunken clientele"? It's a sweet "my darling" to your face. You know the reptilian vocabulary they use behind your back. n