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A friend of mine asked what "same same but different" meant. The context was in an essay called Same-same, but different on the Japan Times website:

One Indochinese term we all learned was the saying "Same-same, but different." It might just look like four words that contradict each other, but this one phrase perfectly described our experiences. Each of the countries we visited would use the same herbs in different ways, or have ways of bargaining that were similar, yet different. Even among our group, we all spoke English, but in many different ways.

After my tour, I carried on to Hong Kong, Taiwan and Japan on my own. The idea of "same-same, but different" continued. Each of these Asian countries had similar foods, languages and writing, but all had put their own unique twist on it.

Is it derived from Tinglish, a broken form of English from Thailand?

same same but different (seems similar but different in some ways)

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  • I don't think it's from Standard Thai. I can't even find a reduplicated Thai term for "same" or "similar". The words I can find for those meanings are "gam lang", "chen", "doot", "ruup", and "meuuan". There are quite a few forum posts with people posting their hunches, assumptions, and opinions as if they're fact, but few with much linguistic rigour that I could find so far. One that looked more credible was that GIs brought it back from the Vietnam war with Vietnamese "xem xem" meaning "similar". The same western ignorance that mocks Japanese as "ching chong" can easily explain the transfer – hippietrail Jun 6 at 6:18
  • To Thai. But... I also can't find evidence that "xem xem" is an actual Vietnamese term either. There could be another dialect or language at play I suppose. – hippietrail Jun 6 at 6:19
  • Hmm I just found that "na ná", "giông giống", "hao hao", and "từa tựa" are Vietnamese terms with reduplication that mean "alike": en.wiktionary.org/wiki/alike#Translations – hippietrail Jun 6 at 6:24
  • It's been asked about several times on Quora, but this answer rings true for me, in which case it would be a calque (word-by-word translation) of a Thai phrase: qr.ae/pGYtqf – hippietrail Jun 6 at 8:37
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The "native" form doesn't repeat the word same, and we often use only rather than but...

the same only different

...normally means something is functionally or substantially the same as something else, but differs in method of implementation, or in minor details.

Thus, for example The Irish say that everyone is the same, only different. This difference is due mainly to the fact that every individual has a different temperament. The meaning there is that all people are basically the same (we all need food, shelter, companionship, etc.), but we're all unique individuals too.

There's no particular implication that anything thus described is "fake", or otherwise of lesser value (but of course, that implication may be present in the context where it's used).

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    As a heads up, I deleted the mention of Urban Dictionary from my question. – Andrew Grimm Mar 31 '13 at 4:30
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    There is a common idiom (US at least) which is closely related: "same difference." I feel it is not quite a perfect match, but... – horatio Apr 2 '13 at 20:34
  • @horatio: I think there are two "halves" to this question. One is the "reduplication" of same same, which I keep intending to raise on linguistics.SE (I suspect it occurs more often in contexts where there are many non-native speakers, where creoles are developing, etc.). The other is the juxtaposition of same + different, for which your same difference (informal, but also common in the UK) is an excellent example. – FumbleFingers Apr 2 '13 at 20:56
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    Same-same part is from Thailand. To say same in Thai language people use some word to repeat twice. So for them its natural to say same-same, just to say same. – Yaroslav Yakovlev Apr 11 '14 at 14:40
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It's a quote from the recent comedy movie The Interview, with Seth Rogan and James Franco. The movie depicts the two men traveling from the US to North Korea to interview Kim Jung Un with a secret mission from the government to assassinate him. The quote comes into play when the two are greeting the people of North Korea. It's an awkwardly funny moment when James Franco states to the crowd in broken English "We are same-same. Different (gestures at skin color and facial differences), but still same".

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    Since the OP lists the source, which predates the movie, I don't think your statement is correct. Also, it does not answer the question. – Davo Aug 29 '17 at 16:38

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