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Culture: Classifying the Thai term ‘Farang’

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.

Sunday 12 July 2015, 08:00AM


FARANG, FARANG!  Most wide-eyed, light-skinned foreigners are easily spotted, and called out in Thailand .

FARANG, FARANG! Most wide-eyed, light-skinned foreigners are easily spotted, and called out in Thailand .

Dr Sirinya Pakditawan
pakditawan@googlemail.com

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 “mun farang” (potato), “muck farang” (chewing gum) and “nung 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 signifying some superior qualities in comparison to the Thai counterparts.

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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.

Yours, Sirinya

Sirinya Pakditawan is a ‘luk kreung’, or half-Thai, born and raised in Hamburg, Germany. She enjoys writing about Thailand, with a focus is on culture, art, history, tradition and on the people, as well as a mix of topics concerning Thai popular culture, travelogues and articles about Thai food.

Sirinya’s aim is not only to entertain you but to provide you with information and facts about Thailand, its culture and history that may not be generally known, in particular to the Western world. She has a PhD in American Studies from the University of Hamburg.

To read the original story, and many more, be sure to check out Sirinya’s blog: 
www.sirinyas-thailand.de

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christysweet | 15 July 2015 - 13:54:49

It's as rude as it gets to refer to someone's race  with a slang  in a third person usage in their presence- which is done by Thais constantly.  
 " Hey, the farang wants a coffee"  Now replace farang with  white, black, gringo or  whatever the term and argue it isn't rude. 

ErlingS | 13 July 2015 - 15:38:46

Hi! Interesting story about the word "farang". I thought it was rather humorous since in the countryside here in Norway, where part of my family come from, they use the word "farang" about being sick to the stomach! I thought maybe the word in Thailand had derived from the observation of tourists getting sick from the food... then making an analogy - for joking! Now I read that...

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