BESIDES THE words kha and krab, which are used in Thai to connote a sense of politeness, the language also has many pronouns or titles that indicate social status and seniority – be it age, social position or job rank – for people involved in a conversation.
Pa is one such pronoun, which is very commonly used in Thai to denote “daddy”, although the pronunciation of the word suggests a Chinese derivation.
So, after a member of Thailand’s political elite recently struck a bartender for calling him Pa, there have been mixed opinions whether the term itself is offensive, with some referring to it as “impolite” while others believe it is a sign of respect.
Anusawn Chirawomgse, a member of National Reform Steering Assembly, recently provoked the controversy by striking the bartender for the ill-received reference. He said he did not like people calling him by such an impolite term.
The drama was sparked after the bartender reported the assault to police, with fuel added to the fire after netizens dug up photos of him with a young woman prompting an online debate whether Anusawn is indeed a Pa.
Certainly the word has different connotations in different contexts. But one commonality in every usage is that it signifies the person being referred to is influential or powerful in some way, with the role of the father being a highly revered institution in Thai culture.
The most common connotation of the term signifies financial power, with the equivalent in English in this sense being “sugar daddy”. If a man is in a nightclub and is called Pa, the impression is that he is a senior figure who has the ability to pay.
The term became more common in the 1990s during the boom of night-time entertainment venues. Older male customers were often referred to as Pa, partly because it was impossible for staff to recall all the customers’ names, but they wanted to maintain a very friendly relationship with them, often to solicit tips.
If people do not look like they can pay, they will instead be called “Uncle”, which in the world of nightclubs is simply not cool – it seems everyone aspires to be a Pa, not an uncle, and of course be surrounded by sugar babies.
But Pa also has several other connotations. Many prominent figures in society are openly referred to as such, indicating they are influential and well respected.
In politics, such figures include Privy Council President General Prem Tinsulanonda, “Pa Prem”, and former minister Sanoh Thienthong, “Pa Noh”.
In the entertainment industry, there are “Pa Thep” (comedian Thep Phongam), the late comedian “Pa Tok” (Sawong Supsamruay) and “Pa Ted” (festival promoter Yuthana Boonom).
The honorific before their names actually signifies seniority, respect and power, which one would think would not provoke the violent response recently allegedly inflicted on the bartender.