Meanings of the Term ‘Farang’ (ฝรั่ง)
We’ve all come across the word ‘farang‘ (ฝรั่ง) in some context or other. We all know that in Thai it describes a European person. However, what are the origins and the meanings of this term? It is an assured fact that the word derives from ‘Frank’, a word that originally referred to a Germanic speaking people in the region of today’s France.
Nevertheless, this term was also widely used in medieval Greece, Egypt and further Mediterranean areas attributing to West European people generally. In addition, similar expressions can be found in other languages as well. For instance, there is the Persian ‘farangg’, the Hindi ‘farengi/farangi’, the Tamil ‘pirangi’, the Arabic ‘frangi’ and the Polynesian ‘palangi’. These terms all sound very similar and point to a common origin.
In fact, the Thai word ‘farang’ was borrowed from Muslim Persian and Indian traders during the Ayutthaya period (1350-1767). During that time this term referred to the Portuguese who were the first Europeans to visit Siam. Later, the term became a generic Thai word for other Europeans as well and finally to all Caucasians generally. What is more, ‘farang’ describes the West in general. Thailand’s neighbouring countries Cambodia (‘barang’) and Laos (‘falang’) also know this term.
Thus, we may say that ‘farang’ is a Thai word referring to ‘Otherness’ whereby there is no specification of culture, nationality, ethnicity and so on…Hence, this word is in fact neutral, even though it might be used as an insult in some contexts. There is for example the expression ‘farang khi nok’ to describe an ill-mannered European. Literally translated this term means ‘guava tree or fruit growing out of bird’s dropping’ since ‘farang’ also means guava which originally came from South America and was brought to Thailand by the Portuguese.
Nevertheless, ‘farang’ is also used as a classifying category to describe things that come from the West. These may be fruits, vegetables, animals, goods or inventions. For instance, think of ‘man farang’ (potato), ‘mak farang’ (chewing gum) and ‘nang farang’ (Western movie). In fact, we may say that things labelled as ‘farang’ sometimes not merely indicate their foreign character but also their alluring character or in other words, the allurance of ‘farangness’. This may be interpreted as signifing some superior qualities in comparison to the Thai counterparts.
Summing up, we may say that ‘farang’ is a cultural signifier of cosmopolitanism that also reflects how Thai people have dealt with Western Otherness and incorporated some foreign aspects into their own culture.
(Reference: Rachel V. Harrison & Peter Jackson eds. The Ambiguous Allure of the West. Traces of the Colonial in Thailand, 2010)