If They’re not the Same, Why Do You Say ‘Same Same’?

Same same, but different. Same same. Same Same…but different.

It’s the name of a 2009 German film (probably tear-inducing based on the trailer I just watched). It’s the name of a song in the 2008 Bollywood film, Bombay to Bangkok (you’re going to want to watch this music video). It’s on T-shirts all across Southeast Asia. It’s even name dropped in the infamous film The Interview.  Apparently, it’s become so widespread that it’s being used in the English hybrid spoken in the UAE.

Just like penises, it’s literally everywhere.

Traveling around Southeast Asia, you hear it all day. Travel forums such as Lonely Planet‘s or Travelfish‘s are host to lots of confused travelers’ questions on its meaning and origins. You even hear it so often that fellow tourists start to pick it up. I saw my sister cringe in annoyance every time a white person responded “same same but different” about something such as New York v. San Francisco, where any other response would have sufficed.

When it comes to the meaning, it’s not terribly difficult to understand. When we asked our hostel manager in Ko Lanta what it meant, she explained that its used to explain two things that aren’t technically the same thing, but are similar and differ slightly based on quality. Samantha Loong found that while traveling throughout Southeast Asia, many of the countries had similar spices, similar customs and languages. But, they all had elements that made them different. Thus, “same same but different.”

Urban Dictionary lists three meanings. Two of them are listed below:

  • Used a lot in Thailand, especially in an attempts to sell something but can mean just about anything depending on what the user is trying to achieve.
    Q “Is this a real rolex?”
    A ” Yes Sir, same same but different”
  • Pertaining to the nature of lady-boys in Thailand.
    When the two breasts look same-same like a woman’s but the dong is still there.
    Bob: I was grinding with a girl and I think I felt a lump.
    Jack: Same same but different.

In North American English, we’d say “it’s the same only different.” Or, if you’re my uncle, you’ll say “similar yet not the same.”

We asked the same Ko Lanta manager where this phrase comes from. She mentioned that she believed it was a popular phrase prior to the opening of a restaurant of the same name, but boomed in popularity following that of the restaurant.

This phrase, most notably associated with Thailand, has no direct Thai translation. According to Wikipedia, it’s a marker of Tinglish, an imperfect English form used in Thailand. I was always perplexed as to why there are two “same’s” in the phrase, when it’s not a natural thing for neither Thais nor native English speakers.

I wanted to find a deeper explanation; a more detailed linguistic ethnography. All searches have failed. It will not be a life goal to report on its origins, and once and for all, inform all travelers on its history.

Regardless of what it means or where it came from, the phrase “same same but different” actually holds a much deeper meaning. Jenny Sue Kostecki-Shaw’s children’s book Same, Same But Different teaches children that although they are culturally distinct, in the end, they are really the same. There are common factors that connect us all, and only minuscule details that make us different.

Just like James Franco’s character explains in The Interview. We are all same same, but different.

Featured photo: Meat at a stall at Silom Soi 20 in Bangkok. Different types of meat? Same same, but different.

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