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Does 'farang' really mean guava fruit?

British poet William Shakespeare wrote, "The fool thinks himself to be wise, but the wise man knows himself to be a fool." Perhaps, I actually am a fool since I almost lost my self-confidence in my knowledge of my own country, culture and language recently.

It happened in Hong Kong last month when a Western expat from Thailand interrupted my lunchtime conversation with a Hong Kong lady who was learning some Thai words from me. He told her that the word farang widely used by Thais to call Caucasians, is insulting and comes from the Thai word farang which means guava fruit. Then, he just walked to the buffet line without waiting for me to explain. This was not funny for me because I feared he would spread this misunderstanding to other foreigners.

This awkward situation and two earlier similar ones triggered my sense of responsibility to write something about the word farang to prevent my fellow Thais and me from being falsely branded rude or even racist.

About three years ago, a new European co-worker repeated the word farang I had just said, but I thought he was learning Thai language. About two years later, another foreign colleague did the same, but failed to hide bad feelings. Thus, I asked him why and he replied that he thought the word farang had a negative hidden meaning.

As a Thai history and language buff, I promptly explained to him that the word farang is nothing insulting or negative at all. I had read some studies and theories that Thais most likely borrowed the Persian word farangi, referring to Europeans or non-Muslims from Indian or Muslim Persian in the 17th century or earlier. The word originated with the word Frank via the Arabic word firinjia referring to the Franks, a West Germanic tribe that ruled Western Europe for centuries during the early Middle Ages and from which France derives its name. This word was pronounced firangi in North India, parangiar in Tamil, barang by the Khmer and ferenggi by the Malays.

I believe Thais have been widely using the word farang instead of the original Persian word farangi to call white foreigners for centuries, probably because Thais tended to simplify and localise foreign words that were difficult to pronounce. For example, the Old Siamese called British diplomat Henry Burney hun-trae baranee, American missionary Dr Dan Beach Bradley mor paladlay and telegraph talapgap. Therefore, it can be understood that Thais call Caucasians farang with no intent to offend or insult them. It was simply because their ancestors were unable to pronounce the word farangi correctly. In my opinion, the word farang referring to foreigners has nothing to do with the word farang which means guava fruit. This can be compared to the English word "patient" which whose different meanings, including "a person under medical treatment" and "persevering", are unrelated.

However, the word farang could become offensive when added with certain words and applied under some circumstances like the word farang khi nok ("bird s--- guava"), which literally means a strain of guava, transmitted via bird excrement, and can be referred to untrustworthy foreigners.

When used alone, the word farang contains no negative meaning, I guarantee. Actually, foreigners should be proud to be called farang as Thais tend to admire farang for being civilised and well-educated according to a deeply-rooted Thai belief. For all the above reasons, I will indefinitely call white foreigners farang. If some farang judge me wrongly as a rude or racist person for this, I will just say mai pen rai ("never mind") since I believe "people who judge others will be judged in the same way they do and with the same measure they use".