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The Thai Word "Kee"

by Kasma Loha-unchit

This little excerpt from Kasma's book It Rain Fishes: Legends, Traditions and the Joys of Thai Cooking shows how the playfulness of the Thai people extends to their language.

Thai ChillieOf all spicy flavors used in Thai cooking, the most popular comes from the smallest of chillies, prik kee noo. Literally translated, the name means "mouse shit chillies." The Thai word kee is not an impolite, dirty or obscene swear word like "shit." Besides meaning excrement, it is used widely to form compound words that imply some kind of waste or residue. For instance, kee dta ("eye shit") refers to the particles of "sleep" in your eyes when you wake up in the morning; kee hoo ("ear shit") is ear wax; kee bu-ree ("cigarette shit") is cigarette ashes;kee peung ("bee shit") is beeswax and kee reuay ("saw shit") is sawdust. The word also appears in countless compound words that emphasize the abundance of particular qualities, such as kee len ("playful shit"), one who is very playful; kee mao ("drunken shit"), someone who likes to drink and get drunk; kee lerm ("forget shit"), a very forgetful person; kee aai ("shy shit"), a very bashful person; kee niow ("sticky shit"), one who is very stingy (stingy people hate to part with anything) and kee moh ("bragging shit"), a braggart.

Why mouse shit chillies? Mice are playful little creatures and like to hide. (Thai children are taught from the time they can talk to refer to themselves with the personal pronoun "mouse," or noo. We never say "I," but noo did this and noo did that.) Sometimes the only clues that tell us they have been around are the tiny food scraps or droppings they leave behind. Thai chillies are little guys much like mice, and they leave behind unseen evidence in the food they touch – but you definitely know they have been there! Like mice, they like to hide, under cilantro leaves and behind pieces of shrimp and other food particles. When you least suspect, they find their way into your mouth and wow! What a sensation! You may even cuss and swear with the "s" word itself.

Copyright © 1995 Kasma Loha-unchit in It Rains Fishes. All rights reserved.

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