There are three Thai restaurants one trolley stop from here in either direction. One of them is named Coconut Cafe. It has a couple of unique appetizers: a Coconut Pancake (think Scallions Pie with coconut added) and Grilled Tofu with a choice of one of the standard curry sauces. And they do a fine job with standards, like Pad Thai and Pad Kee Mow (ผัดขี้เมา 'Drunken Noodles' — there is a small typo in the entry for this dish in the comprehensive Thai Food Glossary, but since this is the internet, it's probably fixed by now).
The menu is in English, with the names of the dishes in transliteration or description. That is the norm around here, certainly for take-out menus; it probably isn't worth finding someone in Boston to do the page layout and printing in Thai. At the top of the menu (and on some of the signs and business cards) the name of the restaurant is given as โคโคนัท คาเฟ่; that is all the Thai on it. Using the transliteration scheme of the invaluable thai2english.com, that is koh-koh-nát kaa-fây. In other words, the English name of the restaurant transliterated.
Cafe is not too surprising as a Thai word. Everyone is going to need a word for coffee and French or English is a likely source. Japanese カフェ; Chinese 咖啡; Vietnamese cà-phê. As European (well, yes, it is Italian caffee from Turkish kahve from Arabic قهوة qahwah) words go, the syllables aren't too bad. Tahitian ends up with taofe and Hawaiian with kope. The word café covers some semantic ground from 'coffeehouse' to 'restaurant' and sometimes the imported word or extensions of it ended up covering that too.
But there isn't much more typical of Thai cuisine or important as an economic foodstuff than coconut. Of course it has an ordinary word, มะพร้าว má-práao. (Since neither the SEAlang Library Thai Dictionary nor the Royal Institute Dictionary says anything about etymology, I assume it's a native word. Lao, another Tai language, has ໝາກພ້າວ mak pow.) But Google finds a number of other restaurants, inns, and so on in Thailand named โคโคนัท.
The English word coconut and all the related European words, some of which have the same form as the English (French noix de coco, German Kokosnuß), come from Portuguese côco 'grinning skull', referring to the holes at the base. Many Indian languages have words related to one another: Hindi नारियल nāriyal; Urdu ناریل nāriyel; Bengali নারকেল nārakela; Gujarati નારિયેળ nāriyeḷ; Marathi नारळ nāraḷ; Nepali नरिवल् nariwal; and Punjabi ਨਾਰੀਅਲ nārial; all from Sanskrit नारीकेल nārikela, which does not appear to have an Indo-European source. Likewise Telugu నారికేళము nārikēḷamu and Kannada ನಾರಿಕೇಳ nārikeḷa; but Tamil தேங்காய் tēngāi (tree is தெங்கு tengu) and Malayalam തെങ്ങ് thenga. Khmer ដូង doung and Vietnamese dừa. Burmese အုန္း oun:. Tagalog niyog; Malay nyiur; and Hawaiian niu. Swahili mnazi. Chinese 椰子 ye1zi5 is about as straightforward as it could be: fruit 子 of a tree 木 that sounds like 耶 ye < *zia. Persian is نارگیل nārgil, from one of the Indian languages. Other Middle Eastern languages declare an Indian origin explicitly: Turkish hindistancevizi; Arabic جوز الهند jauz al-hind; Armenian հնդկական ընկույզ hantkakan engouz, all of which mean 'Indian nut'. In fact, this is how it was known in Europe as well until the time of Vasco da Gama at the end of the 15th Century. All of which is as one would expect for a word describing a food that was disseminated but was not rare enough to have a recognizable single point of origin. Coco and cocoa became particularly confused when their entries were accidentally merged in Johnson's Dictionary, though really it was a confusion just waiting to happen, and we're still living with cocoanut today.
Part of the answer is that Coconut Cafe is the name of the restaurant and one does not usually translate names. A common experience with online translation is that the program has interpreted a proper name as a common noun and translated it into something that makes no sense. (For example, today's entertainment section on Google News China points to an article about 李湘 Li Xiang, who is evidently a well-known CCTV presenter. Google translate offers a headline about "Xiang pyramid." AltaVista is sure that proper names ought to have three characters, and so gives Li Xiangchuan in the headline, followed by Li Xiangdang, Li Xiangjiang, Li Xiangyi and Li Xianghen in the body.) Not that this is entirely wrong in principle, especially in fiction, since sometimes names suggest something to the reader. Apparently a lot of effort goes into coming up with character names in translations of the Harry Potter books.
There are always unique factors like colonialism and wars, but I imagine that Thai has a similar relationship to English as most other modern languages in the world of globalized business and culture. Some words like คอมพิวเตอร์ kom-piw-dter 'computer' and ไมโครเวฟ mai-kroh-wêf 'microwave' are to be expected. As well as less specialized words in certain registers. Naturally, there is a semantic shift sometimes. Just like Japanese マンション manshon, which means 'large apartment.' แฟน faen means 'fan', 'supporter', but more usually 'girlfriend', 'boyfriend'. Here is a paper from around the dawn of the present internet (1992) on the use of English words in Thai magazines of various sorts. The process of using foreign words in Thai is known as ทับศัพท์ táp sàp. sàp is one of the words for 'word'. táp sàp can also just mean 'transliterate'. One way or another, that is what is going on here.
I believe that some of the senses of táp have to do with 'on top of' and are influenced by the English top. This paper on Thai Word-Games (JSTOR access required) describes a game played by schoolchildren where each successive Thai word must rhyme with the English meaning of the previous word. For instance, กบ gòp 'frog' - หอก hòk 'spear' - เมีย mia 'wife' - ให้ hâi 'give'. (The spear has to be non-rhotic. /jf/ in wife is too complicated for the end of a syllable and gets truncated. Similarly when borrowing: 'mile' is ไมล์ mai). As in many languages, rhymes or near-rhymes are popular for neologisms. I think táp sàp qualifies.
My Thai Vegetarian Café is the latest in a series of all-vegan Asian restaurants in Brookline. It began as a Cambodian / Vietnamese restaurant with an extensive vegetarian selection, then went all vegetarian, then successively Chinese, Vietnamese, and now Thai. They use various kinds of mock meat of the sort known as 素肉菜式 su4 rou4 cai4 shi4 in Chinese, the result of kitchen alchemy on tofu and wheat gluten. I doubt these actually taste much like real meat, though I am a poor judge after thirty years, but they have interesting tastes and textures. My Thai seems to be a popular choice for a restaurant name and Google quickly finds ones in California, Toronto, Brisbane, and Dublin. I have to assume that in addition to the rhyme and the personal feel, Mai Tai and the usual English pronunciation of มวยไทย Muay Thai 'Thai boxing' were factors.
Right across the street from My Thai is another Thai restaurant, Dok Bua ดอกบัว 'lotus'. This started out as a Thai bookstore, then Thai market, to more supermarket, added a Thai snack-bar and now is just a restaurant. Of course, with the internet, a Thai bookstore in Greater Boston is no longer sustainable. But it was nice to have. I got a few cookbooks, a colorful Thai alphabet poster for children and a similar one for spelling fruits and vegetables that hangs in our larder. The "A is for apple," "B is for boy" pictorial learning aide is standardized in Thai; the sample words are always the same. One of these charts with pictures is usually for sale as a poster or T-shirt on eBay. The same consonant sound occurs in different letters in different classes determining the tone of the syllable, so these words are actually needed to give the letter a unique name and end up part of the Unicode standard names for Thai glyphs.
In the summer of 2006, Rirkrit Tiravanija, the artist born in Argentina, the son of a Thai diplomat, who grew up in Ethiopia and Canada as well as Argentina and Thailand, and who now works in Bangkok, Berlin and New York, put on Ramakien: A Rak Opera, performed by contemporary Thai musicians. The Ramakien รามเกียรติ์ is the Thai version of the Ramayana रामायण, the story of Prince Rama rescuing his wife Sita from the demon king of Lanka. It is read by every Thai student in school. The title is a pun; รัก rák is 'love' and indeed the Ramakien is a story of love and devotion.
It seems that similar creative uses of English can sometimes be found in Thai pop songs on eThaiMusic.com, a guilty pleasure that proposes to have one learn the Thai language by watching videos and listening to songs while following along with the lyrics. The same videos show up on cable TV on "What's up, Thailand" on AZN, which is inexplicably sometimes part of basic cable here. For instance, this, น้ำลาย náam laai 'spit', which won some Best Video award last year, is of the classic silly suggestive surreal music video variety (the YouTube one even has subtitles) and, if I get the lyrics page right, plays off of the English word lie(s).
Our small collection of Thai contemporary art includes Spiderman and Maiyarap, playing on the same theme of traditional versus global culture. The same artist did the completely over-the-top Superman and Rama's Struggle over Sita, which I think ended up in a museum.
Earlier, in the spring of 2006, Tiravanija recreated the Peace Tower of 1966, a protest against the Vietnam War, this time under the auspices of the Whitney Biennial and against the Iraq War. A comparison of the two wars is difficult and probably ultimately distracts from what is important; and in any case is not something I would attempt here. But it is worth comparing the contexts of the two artworks, conceptual issues of appropriation and post- -isms aside. In particular, the original Peace Tower was not reported on by the art world establishment, such as Art in America or Artforum, until five or more years later, by which time public opinion was pretty much universally against the war. The new Peace Tower is within the context of the well-established Whitney Biennial and was reported on as soon as editorial schedules would allow. No one is incensed by the new tower, certainly not enough to try to burn it down.