What does “Same same but different” mean?
The phrase is common throughout much of Southeast Asia, and can have any number of meanings based on context.
I have seen street vendors in Hanoi and Bangkok use it to sell knock-off sunglasses.
I have heard it used by a Khmer Rouge survivor in Phnom Penh to say that humans are fundamentally the same anywhere you go in the world, just with many superficial differences.
I have even read that, on the other side of the world, the Sami people of northern Scandinavia use the phrase in reference to their unique indigenous identity.
It is undeniably true that, wherever you go in the world, you will find that it is the same, and it is different. And that’s what makes travel so interesting.
Origin of the phrase
It seems likely that it came from South East Asia, from people with limited English attempting to communicate the word “similar” to travellers and tourists, but the country of origin is less clear. It is common in Vietnam, Thailand, Cambodia, Malaysia, Indonesia, Korea, Laos, and parts of China and India. It has also spread to other places like Australia and South Africa, carried home by travellers. Here are some possible origins:
The earliest recording of the phrase I could find is by American soldiers during the American-Vietnam war.
There is actually a word in Vietnam, “Xêm xêm” (pronounced “same same”), that means “similar”. When I first heard this I was convinced this was where the phrase must come from. However, further research shows that “Xêm xêm” entered the Vietnamese language quite recently, and it seems very likely it is a borrowed word, taken from the Asian-English “same same”.
The phrase is probably most well known in Thailand; you can buy T-Shirts bearing the phrase “same same but different” in many tourist shops in Bangkok. There is strong evidence for a Thai origin:
The Thai word for “similar” is KHLAI (คล้าย) or KHLAI KHLAI GAN (คล้ายๆ กัน). In Thailand repeating a word to emphasise it is common (this is called “reduplication”, and is found in many languages, including all major South East Asian languages). Thai people who know the word English word “same” but not the word “similar” could be forgiven for thinking the phrase “same same” means “similar”.
Thai also contains a phrase ” KHLAI KHLAI TAE MAI MEUAN/คล้ายๆ แต่ไม่เหมือน” (similar, but not the same), the literal translation of which seems a likely candidate for the full “Same same but different” phrase.
The phrase is very common in much of Indonesia. In Indonesia the word “sama” means “same”. Interestingly this is a borrowed word from the Indian “Sanskrit” language. The reason “sama” sounds so similar to the English “same”, is because Sanskrit and English are both “Indo-European” languages, and share a common ancestor, 6,000 years ago, so this Indonesian word actually has the same origin as an English word.
In Indonesian and Malay, “sama sama” means “you’re welcome” (sort of like “same to you”). However, in certain dialects (such as in Singapore), it can also mean “similar”. It is therefore possible that “same same” originated as “sama sama” in Indonesia.