“Same Same, But Different”: An Origin Story

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Anyone who has visited Thailand or any part of Southeast Asia comes home with the catch phrase, “same same, but different.” You hear it all the time in Thailand. Found on the many t-shirts that line the night markets of Thailand and uttered by the vendors that sell them, you end up adopting the expression.

When you want to know if a branded item is authentic at the super low price it’s being offered, the vendor would often reply, “Same same but different.” Here, it’s sounds like it’s like the real deal and good enough to buy.

Some days, however, one gets a bit confused. Like, when you want to get a t-shirt that says Chang Beer but they don’t have your size and the vendor hands you a Tiger Beer t-shirt and says, “Same same but different.” At times, they even hand you completely different item from what you are looking for. And, you start wondering what “Same same, but different” is all about and where this expression came from.

WHO STARTED IT?

A catchphrase that is also used in Vietnam, “Same same, but different” may have come from this country before it found its way to Thailand. The earliest records of this catchphrase can be traced back to the American soldiers who first heard it during the Vietnam War. In Vietnam, “Xêm xêm” which sounds like “same same” means similar. So, it is quite easy to believe that maybe “Same same but different” was actually the Vietglish expression “Xêm xêm, but different.”

Another version of the origin of “same same, but different” is the direct translation of khlai which means similar in Thailand. As it is quite common for the Thai language to emphasize something by saying the word twice, they usually say khlai khlai. With similar being difficult to learn, the word same was used as the translation. And, if you double that, you end up with “same same.”

Linguistically, the Thai doesn’t insist on the usage of pronouns and linking verbs the way English does. So, instead of saying, “It is same same but different” the Thais do away with the pronoun and the linking verb by saying, “Same same but different.”

WHAT DOES IT MEAN?

An entry in the Urban Dictionary states that the expression is used as a means of describing “subtle nuances.” When you take a look at the culture of Thailand, however, you will find that there is a lot of vagueness in the way they express themselves. And, hence, you end up with a catchy expression with a very vague definition.

Also, in a culture where saving face is important, there is a need for an expression that conveys that one is not selling the authentic deal but is just as good as the real one. They don’t want to say that their product is inferior. It is just as good but not the same as the real one. At the same time, it emphasizes taking on a relaxed attitude. It looks the same. It looks good. It fits. You can wear it. So, why not just buy it? Why worry about what it’s made of?

It may sound like a mouthful for four words but in a land where English is not the first language, you use whatever phrase you can remember so that you can express yourself. With “same same, but different” being such a catchy expression, it’s no wonder that it is used often.

WHAT DO YOU THINK?

Veteran travelers who have spent enough time with the locals to know the story behind this catch phrase do share what you know by commenting below. Perhaps you have observed the many expressions and body language that comes with this expression to know what it is all about.

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