Whilst the source of the word isn’t clear, there’s evidence to suggest that it was initially used in an offensive way. Following British colonial rule in India, the word firangi was adopted in the Hindi language to be a derogatory term for a European – though it’s hard to say for sure whether that’s the source for the modern day Thai word as we know it. Another potential, less-offensive source is the Persian word farang, which referred to people of the Frank tribe of the Middle Ages (from which modern day France derives its name). This is plausible, as Thais would have had exposure to the French due to trade and France’s colonial interests in neighbouring Laos and Vietnam. So, while the origins aren’t clear, there are cases on either side for whether or not the word is rooted in offence, though the latter, inoffensive etymology seems to have more credence.
To understand whether the word is offensive, one must understand the differences between Thai and Western culture. As we’re seeing the rise of extremism and right-wing sentiment in the West, the word “foreigner” is loaded with negative connotations. Whether it’s Trump labelling immigrants as “drug dealers, criminals and rapists” or political commentators in the UK relating them to cockroaches and vermin, the word foreigner is used only by those who want to push an agenda, or an “us vs them” worldview.
In Thailand, this simply isn’t the case. “Farang”, the Thai word to describe white foreigners, is not a word loaded with intent to harm. If someone is relating to a farang amongst a group of Thais, it’s a convenient if not lazy way to articulate which person it is. While many may object to being labelled in any way, it’s a neutral label and certainly not a negative one when used on its own – though it can be offensive if words are added.
The case for offence depends on the context in which the word is used. If you’ve messed up at work or caused a scene and you hear the word farang, it’s admittedly likely that they’re not praising you, though it’s words that precede or follow farang that would make it offensive. A classic farang insult is farang kee nok, or bird poop foreigner. This phrase is used to describe a farang with no money, or one who is stingy with it – as you can imagine, the legions of backpackers passing through the country over the years has led to such unsavoury terms becoming widespread – though it’s the kee nok addition that transforms a harmless word into a cutting phrase.
If you’re a non-Thai national working alongside Thais, the lack of subtlety when hearing others talking about farangs can sting, though perhaps it’s wise to give them the benefit of the doubt when it comes to deciding whether or not they’re trash talking you. Either way, it’s extra motivation to start learning the language yourself.