farang

From the earthy incense perfuming the red dirt roads of Siem Reap to the noodles frying in the sizzling streets of Bangkok, my wife and I had an incredible time in our all-too-quick visit to Cambodia and Thailand.

Some of my favorite moments, though, involved our attempts at the rich and complex Khmer and Thai languages. For example, locals laughed whenever I issued a self-deprecating barang in Cambodia or farang in Thailand as I fumbled my riel or cast a confused look at which condiments to put on my pad thai. These terms, and I’ll default to farang hereafter, name a “foreigner,” particularly a white Westerner. The etymology of the term has also travelled to these lands from afar.

Farang

We have evidence for farang as early as 1861 in the writings of French explorer Henri Mouhot, whose notes and sketches of Angkor first brought attention of its astonishing temples to many in the West. Most etymologists take farang back to Frank, illustrating, as we recently saw with mush, the so-called Law of Hobson-Jobson.

Many a farang now come to photograph this view of Angkor Wat, which Henri Mouhot sketched in the very travel journal that gives English one of the earliest attestations of "farang."
Many a farang like me now come to photograph this view of Angkor Wat, which Henri Mouhot sketched in the very travel journal that gives us one of the earliest attestations of “farang.”

As the Oxford English Dictionary records, Frank has served to name Western Europeans since the early 1600s, as is also preserved in the term lingua franca, a custom tracing back to the historic mix (and clash) of peoples in the Levant.

This phenomenon is paralleled–or, as some argue, farang‘s source–in Feringhee, used to signify a “European” in India, passed down from the Persian, and Arabic yet before, take on this Frank.

Frank derives from the Gaul-conquering Germanic tribe who ultimately lent their name to France, French, and, frankly, any Frank Franklin feasting on a frankfurter he fetched for a few francs at his neighborhood hotdog franchise, suffused with that, um, appetizing frankincense of sizzling sausages.

Why were the Franks so called? We’re not certain, but it might be for their weapons. Etymologists posit a root in the Germanic *frankon-, referring to a “javelin” or “lance.” These weapons were effective, making these Franks frank, or “free” as the adjective meant early on, ruling over their subjects. “Free” opened up to mean “open,” applied later to speaking frankly, or in a “candid” manner.

Like javelins, some etymologies–and the surprising connections between cultures they make–can seem so far-flung.

m ∫ r ∫ 

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