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Thai 101 Learners Series: A Few Facts about Farang

Thai 101 Learners Series

A farang by any other name…

Any white foreigner who spends even a few days in Thailand will learn at least one Thai word: ฝรั่ง /farang/. It’s being used by Thais to refer to them – whether they’re aware of it or not.

Farang is one of the first words that will stand out from the jumble of Thai constantly spoken on all sides. People are most likely to be saying things like, “Come take this farang’s order, my English is terrible,” or “Help! I can’t make head nor tail of what the farang wants.”

If you’re in a place foreigners don’t normally frequent, you’re likely to hear it randomly shouted at your very presence, by staring children and adults alike.

For the most part, it’s used harmlessly. Some people take it as an insult, but I don’t. If somebody uses it like it’s my name, I might let them know. Thais generally mean no harm by the word, even if they tend to overuse it.

The etymology behind the word farang is relatively clear, but some persistent folk etymologies muddy the waters. I don’t want to get too much into tracing the history of the word right now, though.

The short version: farang doesn’t come from the Thai word ฝรั่งเศษ /farangseet/ “Français”, since its use predates the arrival of caucasians in Thailand; nor does it come from the fact that white people have skin like the inside of a guava.

Likely cognates of farang are found in many languages and many countries, stretching from the Middle East out to Oceania. It was almost certainly spread by Persian traders across mainland Asia many centuries ago. Such traders arrived in Siam by the 16th century, bringing along with their wares the word farangi, meaning Westerner or white man, from the Arabic word “faranji”, and ultimately referring to the Germanic tribe the Franks, dating from the crusades, perhaps as early as the turn of the first millennium, AD.

Yes, that really is the short version.

The so-called farangs have shared their appellation with many things in Thai. The guava, known as ฝรั่ง /farang/ in Thai, is actually native to the Americas and was most likely introduced to Southeast Asia by the Portuguese.

In the early 19th century, John Crawfurd wrote of a fruit the Thais called “banana of the Franks (Kloa-Farang)”, or กล้วย ฝรั่ง /kluai farang/.

So the fruit gets its name from the foreigners who introduced it, and not the other way around.

It’s not just guavas, though. Many of the things introduced by westerners are called “X farang”, which is to say, “the farang version of X”. Common ones include the following:

มัน ฝรั่ง /man farang/ “potato”.
มัน /man/ is a general word for tubers, thus potatoes are “farang tubers”.

หมาก ฝรั่ง /maak farang/ “chewing gum”.
หมาก้ /maak/ is betel, thus gum is “farang betel”.

หน่อ ไม้ ฝรั่ง /naw maai farang/ “asparagus”.
หน่อ ยไม้ /naw maai/ are bamboo shoots, thus asparagus is “farang bamboo shoots”.

ผัก ชี ฝรั่ง /phak chii farang/ “parsley”.
ผักชี /phak chii/ is cilantro/coriander, thus parsely is “farang cilantro”.

In addition to asparagus and potatoes, there are several more plant species not native to Southeast Asia that are known as the “farang” version of some other common plant. These include the following:

มะกอก ฝรั่ง /makok farang/ “A western-style olive”, as opposed to the larger Thai ‘makok’.

Incidentally, the name of the city of Bangkok is believed to derive from มะกอก /makok/.

แค ฝรั่ง /khae farang/ “Gliricidia sepium”, a medium-size leguminous tree.

ตะขบ ฝรั่ง /takhop farang/, kind of flowering plant.

ผัก บุ้ง ฝรั่ง /phak boong farang/ “Morning Glory”, as opposed to the aquatic version (Ipomoea aquatica) used in the popular Thai dish ผัดผัก บุ้ง ไฟ แดง /phak boong fai daeng/ “stir-fried morning glory with oyster sauce”.

ประทัด ฝรั่ง /prathad farang/ “a shrub or small tree” native to Brazil.

แพงพวย ฝรั่ง /phaengphuai farang/ “The Water Primrose”, a herbaceous perennial plant native to the Americas and found on the margins of lakes and ponds.

Rikker Dockum
Thai 101

The Thai 101 Learners Series first appeared in the Phuket Gazette ’08
@ Copyright 2008-2009 Rikker Dockum

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23 Comments

  1. It’s interesting how language shows outlook of a culture. I can’t think of an example in English where we would do this (someone will probably find one, but they are certainly far less common).

    I guess since Thailand was historically a comparatively closed place, that this would come out in how things are named. They label things as foreign versions of something native that is similar.

    One of my favourite examples of culture affecting language in English is how words for farm animals (pig, cow, sheep) are anglo-saxon in origin, while words for food from those animals (pork, beef, mutton) are French. It’s all due to who was in power after the Norman invasion. 940 years later & we still live with the consequences of it.

    Language is a powerful, living thing that reflects where it grows.

  2. I’m also with Rikker. In that calling any westerner a farang is not usually meant as an insult. (edited as my brain threw some confusing mush out there).

    There are two interesting posts at absolutelybangkok.com on the subject: F-Farang, where Khun Nat from Thammasat University puts out a questionnaire for Thais and westerners. And Scientifically Proven: The Good Farang, where you can read the results. (both are no longer online).

  3. What an interesting article. I struggled with being insulted at being called ‘farang’ then not minding so much. It happens in a homogeneous society. I had also noticed the names of these fruits, vegetables and chewing gum had farang in them too, but didn’t know why til now. I’ll check out the links you just quoted, Cat, thanks!

  4. Rikker I am in total agreement with Amy, what a very interesting post. Your history of the word farang is fascinating and I look forward to the lengthier version at a later date. Being called farang has never really bothered me when in Thailand as that is exactly what I am.

    Here in the UK there must be many East Europeans who hear themselves being referred to as foreign or foreigner literally everyday. The term foreign is merely applied because as they are white Europeans then just by looking at them you don’t know their nationality. Farang is I’m sure used in exactly the same way.

    Catherine/Rikker – I am trying to research a Thai hanging plant or perhaps decoration might be a better word and I’m not having any luck with my Google search due to my unsure spelling of its name. The plant resembles a man’s white beard and I’m told its name is Nuat Lur See but I think my spelling is wrong. The name apparently translates as something like ‘The colour of uncle’s beard’ but like I said I can’t find any reference on the internet to it. Do you know of this plant and its proper phonetic spelling or maybe its Thai spelling. Any help would be most appreciated. Thanks.

  5. Amy, like you, I have read a lot of dissing against being called farang on the ThaiVisa forum. But common sense does come into it and that is what I went with. My own common sense.

    Martyn, are you asking about the Thai name for Spanish Moss? Or beard lichen? Spanish Moss is quite popular in BKK.

  6. Catherine a big thank you I’d never have found it. Spanish Moss is the one and I am planning a post on it because Wilai has plenty of it in our village garden. It’s fairly expensive stuff I believe. I have been with her on numerous occasions when she has bought it and she always says how costly it is. Thanks.

  7. @Martyn Spanish Moss is known as หนวดฤาษี nuat ruesi, which translates as “hermits beard”. Just out of interest, the consonant ษ is named ษอ ฤๅษี

  8. Martyn, as a former avid gardener, I was glad to help. And better yet, Simon had the Thai name (thanks Simon).

    I will eventually get around to a post on gardening in Thailand. I am just waiting for my lotus to flower. The seeds were shipped from Florida. Grew the lotus for a year in Borneo. When moving here, I made arrangements, then brought it to Thailand… where it has been stubbornly hanging on.

    It is supposed to be red (unusual) so I will just cry if it turns out ordinary.

  9. Hmm, I coulda sworn I posted to this thread…I guess I am finally losing my mind.

    I agree that for the most part farang isn’t meant as a slight but there are Thai’s that will use it in a demeaning way. Pookie’s family on her fathers side doesn’t particularly care for me or any farang and although they know my name they will continually call me farang instead while the rest of the family call me Tim.

    It was great during Songkran while I was riding around Nakhon Phanom and Mukdahan in the back of a pick up truck and everyone was screaming farang when they saw me…but it was a very nice thing and they were very hospitable offering me much beer and food.

  10. Talen, I do the same. And for me, it is a sign of getting older (preferable to losing our minds?)

    I have not been on the negative end of ‘farang’. And if I had, my views on the subject would be different.

    At the very least, I would be wary. At best, I would avoid a repeat of the situation (it is that cave dweller in me).

    I have now been in Thailand long enough to see through the smiles. So now, if I do notice a negative reaction, I take my presence elsewhere.

    Villa Market has one employee who is known for giving the scathing ‘farang go HOME!’ glare.

    After being patient, then discussing it with other expats (just to make sure I was not losing my mind), my money and me went elsewhere.

    Others did the same.

    And with Villa pricing (you do tend to pay ott for western products), that is quite a large chunk of change going elsewhere.

  11. Simon thanks and I will follow ‘hermits beard’ up and add to the research I gleaned from Catherine’s original information. Thanks to you both.

  12. Very interesting and informative article. When I first came to Thailand in 1969, westerners were few and far between so the echo of “farang, farang” was heard quite often, usually by incredulous children seeing a foreigner for the first time. I always thought that was funny since I, although being an American, am of Asian descent and was not given the same “farang” treatment as my white friends were. I always thought this was justice since in my own country back home I was often called much worse names. And I was born there.

    I have heard the complaints from a number of westerners about the use of a particular phrase which they consider to be very demeaning. The phrase is ฝรั่งขี้นก (farang kii nok) roughly translated as “bird shit guava”. They feel that for some reason they are being compared to bird droppings. But this is not the case (usually). There is a type of guava here that has white speckles, similar to bird droppings. It goes by the name of ฝรั่งขี้นก. (Remember: the word ขี้ (kii) is a normal word here and does not carry the same negative connotations as the “s” word does back home.) What most people are doing when they see a “farang” and say “farang kii nok” is simply a play on words, farang = guava, farang = westerner. And do Thais love to play on words. So I wouldn’t be too upset when you hear this. Of course, I myself never get that treatment. So goes ones karma.

  13. Hugh, I have heard a number of explanations for ฝรั่งขี้นก, but I don’t recall a guava with white spots. I’ll add that bit of knowledge to my growing insight into the Thai mind.

    Thailand is one place on earth that cannot claim me as a decedent. When I met Polish people, ‘Oh, you have the face of a Polish lass!’ The same went for Italian, Spanish, English, German, and (one a rainy day) French, and others.

    But I cannot produce a decent tan, no matter how long I fry in the tropical sun. So while the lovely girls of Thailand prefer the use of whiteners, I look at their naturally tanned complexions with envy. May we all get what we want on the next round… (I am not ruling out anything this week).

  14. Retraction:

    As is usual I was a bit misinformed about something here in Thailand, namely, ฝรั่งขี้นก (farang kii nok). There really is a guava here called Bird Dropping Guava but there is a little more to the story than just playing on words. The ฝรั่งขี้นก is a small guava, very hard to find nowadays because it is fairly worthless as a fruit for sale in the market. Besides being quite small it is full of red seeds. There is an old Thai saying “farang kii nok hook bai selung” or “6 bird dropping guavas for 1 selung (1/4 of a baht). The fruit got its name because of the way the seeds are spread, through birds first eating the fruit and then spreading the seeds through their droppings.

    But the term ฝรั่งขี้นก can be used in a derogatory way, but not in the way we first think of. The “s” word has nothing to do with it. As it turns out, since the ฝรั่งขี้นก fruit is so worthless. this term is used with “worhtless” farangs as opposed to the “good” kind. So I guess it would be fine to be called “farang” but not so good to be called a “farang kii nok”.

    As for Catherine’s pearly white skin, forget about the tanning. The Thais would kill for skin as whites as yours.

  15. This word always starts a lively discussion. :)

    Here’s an excerpt of a lengthy post I wrote for my blog in 2007, but never ended up posting, because it wasn’t complete:

    [It started by giving more lengthy history of the word ‘farang’]

    Now on to ขี้นก. It’s clipped from ฝรั่งขี้นก. Yes, in a sense, this literally means “bird crap farang,” but this is a misinterpretation. In fact, ฝรั่งขี้นก is a specific variety of the guava, with red flesh on the inside. The origin of the term in Thai, as the story goes, is that when a bird would eat guava seeds, the seeds would pass through the bird’s system. And when the bird poops out these seeds, the plants that grew from them had red flesh. Now, obviously that’s just a story, but it came to have a figurative meaning in 19th and 20th century Thailand, when Westerners began to live in Siam in greater numbers. The phrase ฝรั่งขี้นก was applied by Thais to other Thais–those who were seen as being overly Westernized. They tried to look like the ฝรั่ง, but inside, they were still Thai. Same on the outside, different color on the inside. In this sense, it meant something like a “fake” ฝรั่ง. For many older Thais, this is still the meaning ฝรั่งขี้นก holds today.

    The way this came to mean “undesirable Westerner” today is a progression of a couple more steps. ฝรั่งขี้นก began to be used derisively of other Thais. Instead of simply someone who tried it act like the farang, it came to mean a bad mannered Thai, especially one who abandoned Thai ways and traditions in favor of Western ones. From there, it began to be applied to bad-mannered Westerners. Coupled with the recent misunderstanding that Westerners are called ฝรั่ง after the guava fruit, the meaning has been reanalyzed (perhaps by Westerners who didn’t know the origin of the term) to mean a guava with bird crap on it–a dirty guava, an undesirable guava. Hence, a dirty or undesirable Westerner.

    Hugh, as you can tell from this account, it was my impression that the ฝรั่งขี้นก name originates because of a popular belief that passing through the bird’s system causes a normal ฝรั่ง seed to become a ฝรั่งขี้นก seed. That isn’t actually possible, of course, but it’s certainly possible that that’s what people believed. I’m still lacking evidence for this etymology, though. It’s just anecdotal. But it makes sense to me.

  16. Thanks you two. I was always curious whenever the Thai forums got heated over the subject of ขี้นก, but I don’t recall there being enough information batted around to grab on to. Now there is.

    Do Thais often write about this subject?

  17. Ahh the age old debate about the word farang and racism. What does the government care?!..
    http://www.orientexpat.com/forum/19184-farrang-good-or-bad-term/

  18. Whenever I hear newcomers at my school bitching about the word “farang”, I tell them that HM the King used it to refer to farangs in this 80th birthday speech. And I cannot imagine HM using a word that has a derogatory meaning. It may be used by others in a very negative sense, but the word itself feels harmless to me. (Of course also because it is also the usual word at my school to refer to farang teachers, as opposed to Thai teachers, by parents, students, the uptight Thai principal, everyone.)

  19. Betti, I just read about the King’s birthday speech today. And I am of the same opinion, that he would not use it in a demeaning way.

  20. Hello, I never feel hurt by farang words. I use farang a lot myself to refer to euro-american-australian-UK-russian… style person when I speak with Thai people in English/French or with some sort of English speaking people.
    As I ‘am french, when I was child and still living in France, I used to give an non-personal “name” to any english speaking people (well I presumed to) as I couldn’t guess if they were coming from UK, USA, Australia… I was always some thing like “il parle anglais” (but there was also a less polite version “c’est un english”, even less polite “c’est un englosh”). Now I still cannot guess which country an English speaking person is coming from and I still just say, “il parle anglais”. Which is my personal “farang” word. Have a nice week.

  21. Bernard, Andrew Biggs has two recent articles on farang that are close to how I feel. Mostly, I don’t care one way or the other, but there are rare times when it grates on me.

    EDIT: ‘You’re a farang, Embrace it’, and ‘Hey, you, farang! Why so sensitive’ are now offline. Thanks for nothing Bangkok Post.

  22. Stephen Cleary

    June 11, 2012 at 2:48 pm

    I certainly agree with the theory the word ‘farang’ was introduced into Siam by the Persian merchants, who, unlike, the Portuguese, Dutch, Eng, French etc … actually mixed with the local people instead of ‘socializing’ with the nobles/ministers and kings etc… in order to acquire ‘business’ deals (some would call it ‘gunboat’ diplomacy).

    The word ‘farang’, however, is much older that modern Persian/Arabic.
    In archaic Greek (pre-Islamic Persia) the word for stranger is Farangos. The furthest back usage of the word ‘farang’ belongs to Indo-European (Aryan) languages of thousand of years ago. As a root of the Indo-European tree, the word Farang as foreigner/stranger in Sanskrit, out-dates Persian/Arabic.

    There are many words in the English language which have the same roots in Indo-European/Aryan as present day Thai (via Sanskrit). Quick example:

    Loub in Sanskrit = desire/want/need (as in a defilement)
    Lop in Thai = greed/desire
    Love in English = (in archaic English = desire/need)

    Stephen/ Etymological lexicographer.

  23. Stephen Cleary

    June 11, 2012 at 3:15 pm

    A. Rikker:

    You mention ฝรั่งขี้นก as a term for Siamese who having studied abroad became known as ‘fake’ Caucasians.
    From my academic reading, the term was/turned into/turned back into ฝรั่งขี้งก (ngok, as in stingy/mean). Farangkhee-ngok (not nok)was used frequently during the dictatorial realm of FM Phibun and FM Sarit. Phibun, as one of the 1930’s ‘revolutionaries’, used the saying in his propaganda to lambast the nobles who, on acquiring Western educations etc…, came back and did ‘little’ to ‘civilize’ in then was called Siam.
    Until today, in modern Thai,ฝรั่งขี้งก is, instead, the term for Thai ‘farang-wanna-bes’. It could, however, certainly be argued vice-versa.

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