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.


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 ∫ 

Buddha, eBay, & ombudsmen

My wife and I will soon be wat-eyed and pad-tied on our upcoming trip to Cambodia and Thailand. In preparing for these trips, I consulted the cultural, the cartographic, the culinary, the commercial, the communicational–and, of main concern here at the Mashed Radish, the cognates.

Thailand predominantly practices Buddhism, as you probably well know. The religion is founded in the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, later dubbed the Buddha when he achieved enlightenment. As is often cited, Buddha means “awakened” or “enlightened” in Sanskrit. Now, online auctions and official complaints sure sound like a far cry from spiritual knowledge, but their etymological connections prove pretty enlightening.

"Buddha." Doodle by @andrescalo.
“Buddha.” Doodle by @andrescalo.


In Sanskrit, buddha (बुद्ध) means “awakened” and “enlightened,” formed from the verb budh, “to know” or “perceive.” Historical linguists root this verb in the Proto-Indo-European *bheudh-, “to pay attention” or “be observant,” as glossed by the Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and the Proto-Indo-European World.

As inscrutable as Sanskrit can seem, buddha is linguistically reincarnate in some very familiar English friends: bid and bode. Now, bid is a busy word in English. The bid related to Buddha is not the one we see in the phrase bid farewell; this bid has a different origin. Rather, the bid at hand might be the bid you make by raising your hand at an auction or when playing your hand in a game of Spades.

Bid and bode

Originally meaning “to offer” or “to proclaim,” we can trace this bid to the Old English béodan, which we have early evidence for in Old English. The Germanic base of this béodan has meanings of “to stretch out” and “present,” which were extended to “to communicate” and “inform,” hence the evolution of the English sense of “offer” and “proclaim.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the past tense of béodanboden, created the Old English boda, a “messenger.” Boda delivered the verb bodian, producing today’s bode, as in it doesn’t bode well.  With bid we get forbid; bode, forebode. Both feature the complicated prefix forwhich means “against” in forbid but “ahead of” in forebode.


The Old English béodan yielded bydel, a “herald” or “messenger.” This word evolved into beadle, a minor church official or ceremonial mace-bearer. Another kind of official also shares a root with bid and Buddha: the ombudsman

In Swedish, an ombudsman was an official appointed by parliament to investigate complaints of governmental maladminstration (OED). Other European governments adopted the position–and the word–in the 20th century. The word was taken up more generally in organizations by the 1970s. Carrying the sense of “commission man” in Swedish, ombudsman is related to the Old Norse umboðsmaðrUm– around,” is connected to the prefix ambi, while maðr, “man,” is connected to “man.” The core of the word, boð, “order, command, offer,” is the cognate to our roots of interest here.

The enlightenment etymology affords us by no means helps us attain nirvana, but such a connection as unites Buddhabidbode, and ombudsman can feel pretty transcendent to this word nerd.

The Mashed Radish will be back at it in April. In the meantime, make a point to explore the official languages of Thailand and Cambodia. They are rich, complex, multilayered, and fascinating. Sanskrit and Pali have left quite the footprint in them, especially in terms of their vocabulary and scripts.

m ∫ r ∫