I used to live in Thailand, so I have a vaguely proprietorial fondness for things Thai, and I have certainly eaten and enjoyed the most famous Thai dish, which Wikipedia has under Pad Thai and the OED under “phad thai,” but if you had asked me about the name I would have said something like “Uh, I guess maybe the thai means ‘Thai’?” Well, so it does (OED etymology: “< Thai phàtthai < phàt stir-fried food + thai Thai”), and it was created around seventy years ago specifically as an authentically Thai food to replace the Chinese dishes Thais were gobbling so enthusiastically and (in the Great Leader’s opinion) unpatriotically. You can read all about it in Pitchaya Sudbanthad’s Morning News piece, and I recommend you do; even if you don’t care about the dish, you don’t want to miss sentences like “In between surviving multiple point-blank-range assassination attempts and a failed kidnapping in which he emerged alive from the burning wreckage of a battleship his own air force had just bombed, Pibulsongkram decided that Thailand needed noodles that would advance the country’s industry and economy” and “Thus was born the Volksnoodle for an emerging Thai nation-state.”


  1. I have no evidence, but I suspect that phàt of being a Chinese loanword.

  2. Pibulsongkram : I love those wonderful Thai names. They must mean something, but I don’t want to know, just enjoy trying to pronounce them.

  3. “I have no evidence, but I suspect that phàt of being a Chinese loanword.”
    It sure smells like that, doesn’t it, John. So I went and looked in my easy look-up one stop and found these:
    … and not one of them looks even possible. But I still wonder. The source language would be Hokkien probably.
    This dictionary happened to leave out another possibility,爆, but you will notice that the Cantonese cognate does not have a final consonant.

  4. Successes of the invented culture phenomena must be relatively uncommon – we tend to believe that the cultures evolve more or less organically, and that, as Russian saying goes, насильно мил не будешь ~~ you can’t force others to like things. (Therefore proscriptions may change culture, but not so promotions?)
    M-L – I heard that the names of Chinese Thai (which were all Thai-cized during the same Nationalist era) are just as wonderfully convoluted to the Western ear, but pretty transparent to the locals who quickly identify the bearers of such names as Chinese.
    Without knowing the political and macroeconomiv history of pad thai, I still thought that another dish is the quintessential Thai food. Green papaya salad = som tum. But I decided to check the matters, and, lo and behold, som tum appears to be a Lao borrowing! My som tum version is thoroughly Westernized, having lost most of the original components but not its sour-sweet-spicy-salty union of tastes (even peanuts are gone, replaced, along with palm sugar, by freshly honey-caramelized sliced almonds)

  5. Dmitry, som tam is both Lao and Isaan Thai. I guess the river is narrow along that stretch. The languages are mutually intelligible too.
    With names, probably what is happening is that Chinese in Thailand take Thai names. Using aliases is pretty standard in Chinese culture, in fact it was bad form to the point of cauisng real offense for the wrong person to use someone’s actual name. Even servants were given work aliases. So it was quite natural to adopt aliases to use with foreigners, whether in Thailand or in the West.

  6. German-Jewish names are made of impeccably German elements, but it’s usually fairly obvious which ones are ethnically German and which were made up by 19th-century Austro-Hungarian officials.

  7. I have no evidence, but I suspect that phàt of being a Chinese loanword.

    I just checked Wiktionary and found “Cognate with Lao ຜັດ (phat, ‘to fry; to change, to replace, to postpone’); Khmer ផាត់ (phat, ‘to fry’),” for what that’s worth.

    As for the prime minister’s name, Wikipedia sez:

    Plaek Phibunsongkhram (Thai: แปลก พิบูลสงคราม [plɛ̀ːk pʰí.būːn.sǒŋ.kʰrāːm]; alternatively transcribed as Pibulsongkram or Pibulsonggram

    They have a section on his early life that discusses his name change, but doesn’t give an explanation for the adopted surname:

    Plaek Khittasangkha (Thai: แปลก ขีตตะสังคะ [plɛ̀ːk kʰìːt.tà.sǎŋ.kʰá]) was born on 14 July 1897 in Mueang Nonthaburi, Nonthaburi Province in the Kingdom of Siam to Keed Khittasangkha and his wife. Plaek’s paternal grandfather was said to be a Cantonese-speaking Chinese immigrant. However, the family was completely assimilated as Central Thai people and Plaek does not pass the criteria for being Chinese, which is why he could later successfully conceal and deny his Chinese roots. Plaek’s parents owned a durian orchard and he received his given name – meaning ‘strange’ in English – because of his unusual appearance as a child. Plaek Khittasangkha studied at Buddhist temple schools, then was appointed to Chulachomklao Royal Military Academy. He graduated in 1914 and was commissioned a second lieutenant in the artillery. Following World War I, he was sent to study artillery tactics in France. In 1928, as he rose in rank, he received the noble title Luang from King Prajadhipok and became known as Luang Phibunsongkhram. He would later drop his Luang title, but permanently adopted Phibunsongkhram as his surname.

  8. “Thai Fry” has a nice ring.

Speak Your Mind