“Play” in Thai Idioms – Part 1: Nice & Fun Play

คำว่า “เล่น” ในสำนวนไทย – ตอนที่ ๑: เล่นดี เล่นสนุกๆ

 

Before the crazy Thai political goblins abducted and detained me in the political chatterbox, I was more or less normal and very much enjoyed talking leisurely about the non-political aspect of Thai language (among other things). Now that the goblins have become less maniacal and keep me on a long leash, I am sneaking back to my original duty – detecting (in order to mumble on) about non-political Thai words and their meanings.

Thai – A Playful Language

In March and April I tweeted a series of Thai idioms that contained the word เล่น” /lên/ – “to play” in Thai. I think I tweeted about 25 of them, but of course there are many more.

Those who know Thai can all agree that Thai is a very playful language since the native Thai-language speakers are a very playful people who love to do all kinds of things to our language – playing with, teasing, twisting, caressing, massaging, molesting and making love to it on a regular basis. I’ll give the first evidence for this bold claim with what Thais have done to the word เล่น.”

I have selected a set of idioms and expressions with the word เล่น” and put them into a few loose categories, if only to allow me to break the article into three parts as follows:

Part 1: Nice & Fun Play ตอนที่ ๑: เล่นดี เล่นสนุกๆ

Part 2: Bad & Dangerous Play ตอนที่ ๒: เล่นร้าย เล่นอันตราย

Part 3: Sexual Play, etc. ตอนที่ ๓: เล่นรัก ฯลฯ

And today, let’s start with Part 1.

เล่นน้ำสงกรานต์ Play Songkran

เล่นนํ้าสงกรานต์ “play Songkran” (photo credit: นราธิป http://www.cm108.com)

Part 1: Nice & Fun Play

ตอนที่ ๑: เล่นดี เล่นสนุกๆ

As you’ll see in this 3-part series of my musing about /lên/ words and idioms, there are all kinds of plays as expressed by this Thai word: “เล่น.” In Part 1 we’ll get to know the nice and fun set – the following vocabulary is used generally in day-to-day life, and shows the nice and fun side of Thai people and culture.

Joking, Teasing & Having Fun

In its most basic meaning, “to เล่น” /lên/ means “to play”, and the purpose of the “play” is “to have fun” (สนุก /sà-nùk/), which is in turn the purpose of existence among many of my fellow Thais. In the Thai concept of sanuk, you can’t be serious – or it would defeat the purpose of having fun, wouldn’t it? As though to make sure that “playing is sanuk” there’s even a Thai word that says just that: เล่นสนุก /lên sà-nùk/, i.e. “fun play.”

 

As for the non-serious part, among the first word new learners of Thai are introduced to is พูดเล่น /phôot lên/, which means “just joking” or “just kidding” (meaning what is said should not be taken seriously). We Thais use this expression as an excuse all the time when we want to tease or feel we have offended someone. For example:

แอปเปิ้ล อย่าโกธรผมเลยนะครับ ผมพูดเล่นน่ะ “Apple, darling, please don’t be angry with me (male speaker). I was just kidding.” (said with a repentant look)

Another very commonly used word for “kidding,” “joking” or “teasing” (in a friendly, good-naturedly way) is ล้อเล่น /lÓO lên/. One example of use (between two young Thais):

เฮ้ย พ่อแกมีกิ๊กจิงง่ะ! ล้อเล่นป่าววะ? “Hey, your old man has a squeeze? Really? You kidding me?”

One frequently used expression in Thai is เล่นๆ /lên lên/, lit. “play play.” Of course, it doesn’t mean double play. It is an adverb that emphasizes the activity as being done “just for fun,” or perhaps “just to kill time,” for example:

  • ทำเล่นๆ /tham lên lên/ (lit. “do play”) = to do it just for fun
  • เขียนเล่นๆ /khǐian lên lên/ (lit. “write play”) = to write just for fun
  • คบเล่นๆ /khóp lên lên/ (lit. “date play”) = to date [sbd] just for fun.

When someone is joking and jesting with words or action, not taking things seriously enough, you can reign them in a little with words like these:

คุณน่ะ พูดเป็นเล่นไป จริงจังหน่อยสิคะ “You are such a jester. Be more serious.”

นี่คุณเล่นทวิตเตอร์อีกแล้วเหรอ อย่าทำเป็นเล่นไปนะ เดี๋ยวหัวหน้ามาเล่นงานเอาหรอก “You are on Twitter again? Don’t muck around. One of these days the boss is gonna get you.”

Jokester type likes to “play funny”เล่นตลก /lên tà-lòk/. This term actually has a wider span of meaning – from literally “joking,” “playing comedy” or “being funny” to more ambiguous and negative kinds of play like “being  facetious,” “making a farce, ridiculous sham or a hoax.”

 

Fun Leisure, Sports & Hobbies

Thais love sanuk so much that we can turn any mundane activity into something leisurely and fun. Consider these:

  • เดินเล่น /dooen lên/ (lit. “walk play”) = to take a stroll
  • กินเล่น /kin lên/ (lit. “eat play”) = to nibble at food or to eat as snacks (not a real meal)
  • วิ่งเล่น /wîng lên/ (lit. “run play”) = to run around (used with children)
  • นอนเล่น /nOOn lên/ (lit. “sleep play”) = to lie down for a rest (not a real nap or sleep), to lounge around
นอนเล่น

นอนเล่น สบายๆ ครับ – lit. “sleep play”, lounge around, taking it easy (photo credit: http://marvin.diaryis.com/2006/09/24)

Pastimes for us Thais are also fun. Like people anywhere, we “play sports” เล่นกีฬา /lên kii-laa/. A number of sports (though not all) are “played” by us, for example, we “play football” (เล่นฟุตบอล), we “play golf” (เล่นกอล์ฟ), we “play ping pong” (เล่นปิงปอง). But when we swim as a serious exercise in a modern sense we simply “swim” (ว่ายน้ำ /wâay náam/).

Traditionally however, Thais actually love to “play water” เล่นน้ำ /lên náam/ – big time. Or Songkran water festival wouldn’t be one of our most favorite cultural events. Each Thai New Year in April Thais of all ages, especially the young, เล่นนํ้าสงกรานต์ /lên náam sǒng-kraan/ as seen in the picture above.

In the traditional Thai sense, the act of เล่นน้ำ /lên náam/ may or may not involve swimming. You can “play the water” in the klong (canal) (เล่นน้ำคลอง /lên náam khlOOng/), swimming pool (เล่นน้ำในสระว่ายน้ำ /lên náam nai sà-wâay-náam /), or the sea (เล่นน้ำทะเล /lên náam thá-lee/).

เล่นว่าว "play kite"

เล่นว่าว “play kite”

There are other kinds of leisure activities which Thais “play,” like one traditional activity:  เล่นว่าว /lên wâaw/, which means literally “to play kite”, or to put it another way “to fly kite” ชักว่าว* /chák wâaw/.

Take note*, gentlemen readers especially, the latter term ชักว่าว /chák wâaw/ should be used with care as it is a double entendre. It can mean flying a (real) kite like in the picture or it could mean flying something else entirely that involves not-so-innocent use of a hand with a particular “member” of the (male) body.

Then there are indoors sports, which is what we call กีฬาในร่ม /kii-laa nai rôm/. In this category, we play any number of “sports” from largely official, Western imports of indoors sports such as เล่นหมากรุก /lên màak-rúk/ = play chess, เล่นแร็กเก็ตบอล /lên racket ball/ = play racket ball, or เล่นเสก็ต /lên sà-két/ = “play” skate, to somewhat dubious indoors sport such as เล่นไพ่ /lên phâi/ = play cards. But again, watch out: “playing indoors sports” (เล่นกีฬาในร่ม /lên kii-laa nai rôm/) in Thai idiom is another double entendre. It can either mean playing a real, legitimate indoors sports such as ones mentioned above, or playing another kind of “sport” – a “contact” sport – without any referees, i.e. sex.

Other activities that are not seen as serious or productive are also often described as “play” activities. Many new computer-related activities are described as such, for example:

  • เล่นคอมพิวเตอร์ /lên computer/ (lit. “play computer”) = to use the computer
  • เล่นเกมส์คอมพิวเตอร์ /lên geem computer/ = lit. “play computer games”
  • เล่นเน็ต /lên nét/ (lit. “play internet”) = to use/spend time on the internet
  • เล่นเฟชบุ้ค /lên Facebook/ (lit. “play Facebook”) = to use Facebook
  • เล่นทวิตเตอร์ /lên Twitter/ (lit. “play Twitter”) = to use Twitter

Then there are some traditional hobbies that are actually taken quite seriously (certainly by the hobbyists), which are also described with the word “play.” One such serious hobby is เล่นพระ /lên phrá/. The word พระ /phrá/ in this phrase does not mean “monk” but “amulet” which is generally an image of Buddha. To เล่นพระ /lên phrá/ (lit. “play amulets”) means “to collect amulets.”

Skilled Play

เล่นหาง cursive Thai letters

เล่นหาง “cursive” Thai letters

Certain kinds of play require talent and honed skills – some skills can be honed with moderate efforts while other skills are much harder to acquire. I don’t know if Thai school children nowadays are still taught to practice Thai writing in the old cursive style like in the picture on the left. This kind of writing is called เล่นหาง /lên hǎang/, lit. “play tail”, i.e. “cursive” or (letters or writing) in “long-tailed” style like in the picture on the right.

In another artistic play เล่นลวดลาย /lên lûat laay/ (lit. “play design”), the “play” is with highly intricate design or designs – the word ลวดลาย /lûat laay/ or simply ลาย / laay/ means “design.”

ลายไทย เบญจรงค์

เล่นลวดลาย “play design” in Thai Benjarong urn

Thais care a lot for and take pride in the presentation of people and things, so the artistry is very important. Like this urn has an elaborate “Thai design” (ลายไทย /laay thai/). The maker of this urn “played (with) the Thai design” (เล่นลายไทย / lên laay thai/) and the result is an exquisite beauty of an urn.

In another kind of art – which actually has a lot of science – the “play” is with illusion and magic: เล่นกล /lên kon/, lit. “play magic.This term has to levels of meanings: 1) to literally “play magic” in the sense that a professional and amateur magician plays magic or creates illusion; and 2) to make believe or create a hoax. In the first sense, the “magic” or “illusion” is called มายากล /maa-yaa kon/, which literally means “illusion machine.” To “play magic” in the literal sense is also called เล่นมายากล /lên maa-yaa kon/ and the “magician” or “illusionist” is called นักมายากล /nák maa-yaa kon/

Words for Thais are an art form. So, Thai language is full of word play. The first  idiom having to do with word play is เล่นลิ้น /lên lín/, lit. “play tongue.” In fact, it was this idiom that sent me off to collect Thai words and phrases with the word เล่น in them. Somebody was poking fun at PM Abhisit for using his oratory skills for no good purpose – according to the critics who said PM เล่นลิ้น /lên lín/, “playing tongue.” This expression means “to quibble” or “to use banter or witticism.” This kind of talent is ambivalent, leaning on the negative.

There is actually a literal Thai expression for “to play with words” – เล่นคำ /lên kham/, i.e. “to make puns or word play.” There are also synonyms, including เล่นสำนวน /lên sǎm-nuuan/, lit. “play idioms,” “play repartee”; and เล่นโวหาร /lên woo hǎan/, lit. “play rhetoric,” “play oration,” “play eloquence.” Sometimes these two also come together as เล่นสำนวนโวหาร /lên sǎm-nuuan woo hǎan/, with the same meaning as เล่นโวหาร.

Stay tuned for Part 2 & Part 3.

Part 2: Bad & Dangerous Play ตอนที่ ๒: เล่นร้าย เล่นอันตราย

Part 3: Sexual Play, etc. ตอนที่ ๓: เล่นรัก ฯลฯ

2 responses to ““Play” in Thai Idioms – Part 1: Nice & Fun Play

  1. Very interesting.Thanks for posting.
    PS
    In your example sentence, เฮ้ย พ่อแกมีกิ๊กจิงง่ะ! ล้อเล่นป่าววะ? “Hey, your old man has a squeeze? Really? You kidding me?”
    What does ง่ะ mean?
    Is it a particle or interjection?
    See this word a lot in internet chat, but can’t find it in any dictionary.
    https://thaiwomantalks.com/2010/06/13/play-in-thai-idioms-part-1-nice-n-fun-play/#comment-212

    • James, thanks for the question.

      ง่ะ is more of a particle, though not an official one. You might have noticed, colloquial Thai expressions and words are often chopped off, truncated. If the teenage speaker were to speak a little less like a teenager, he might say:
      เฮ้ย พ่อแกมีกิ๊กจริงหรือเปล่าวะ ล้อเล่นรึเปล่า?
      >>compared to:
      เฮ้ย พ่อแกมีกิ๊กจิงง่ะ! ล้อเล่นป่าววะ?

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