French Dressing

By Philologos

Published October 27, 2006, issue of October 27, 2006.
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From Raphael Rothstein comes an e-mail query:

“I am curious about the Hebrew slang expression la-lekhet franji, [literally, “to go franji”], i.e., to dress fancily. I believe it comes from the Middle Eastern word for Frenchman, European, or stranger. Is this so?”

It is, indeed. Franji is the Arabic word for a European or European-like foreigner, and to “dress franji” in Arabic means to wear European clothes. A tribal sheik who dons a white robe with gold trimming and a resplendent checked headdress might be dressing fancily but he is not dressing franji, whereas if he wears an old suit and tie he is dressing franji but not fancily. In Israeli slang, however, as Mr. Rothstein points out, the word is used somewhat differently.

Foreigners are commonly travelers, and so, in its many variations in numerous different languages, franji is without a doubt one of the best-traveled pre-modern words on this planet. (I say “pre-modern” because in modern times, a very large number of international words, from “radio” to “rock ’n’ roll,” have spread all over the globe.) Starting out as the medieval word Frank, “Frenchman,” it traveled eastward, first in reference to the Crusaders and then to European traders and colonialists, disseminating itself all over Asia and reaching as far as the Indonesian archipelago and possibly the South Sea islands. Here, courtesy of a Web site called The Linguist List, are some of the languages in which the word turns up:

Greek frangos, “Westerner”; Turkish frenk, “European” (frengi in Turkish means syphilis, for which the Turks had Europe to thank); Syriac frang, “European”; Persian ferang, ditto; Amharic frenj, “White Man”; southern Indian farangi or pirangi, “European” or “White Man”; Thai farang, ditto; Cambodian barang, ditto; Vietnamese pha-lang-xa, ditto; Malaysian ferringi, ditto; Indonesian barang, goods sold by a foreign trader; Samoan papalangi, “foreigner.” (Other derivations for papalangi, however, also have been given.)

In many of these languages these words have a pejorative ring — like “gringo” in Mexico and yanqui in South America — but not in all. For instance, among the Karen of Thailand, a large tribal group living in the country’s northwest (a much larger population of Karens lives across the border in Burma), there is a widespread belief that the falang, a term that denotes white foreigners, are the Karens’ younger brothers who were separated from them at the time the human race took to speaking different languages. The reason that the falang have done so well for themselves, according to Karen legend, is that once, when the world was young, God sent the Karen a holy book that the falang intercepted and with which they made off. This is why they are so better educated than anyone else. Yet one day the falang will return with the book, which many Karen today take to refer to Christianity and the Bible, and the Karen and the falang will be reunited.

The reason that the Crusaders were originally called “Franks” by the peoples who lands they invaded, starting with the Greeks of the Byzantine Empire, is that the First Crusade, which set out for the East in 1096, was basically a French enterprise. True, the initial wave of Crusaders that set out to conquer Jerusalem from the Muslims, a ragtag army formed in the wake of the call of Pope Urban II to conquer the Holy Land, was composed largely of the German followers of Peter the Hermit, a charismatic French monk who preached the Pope’s summons in the Rhineland.

But Peter’s poorly trained and equipped forces, sometimes known as “the People’s Crusade,” got no farther than Asia Minor, where they were decimated by Turkish raiders, while a second band of largely German Crusaders, led by Count Emich of Leisingen and by two preachers named Gottschalk and Volkmar, spent most of its energy massacring Jews in the Rhineland and fell apart in Hungary. After that, the campaign was taken over by the military professionals, almost all of whom were French feudal commanders like Count Hugh of Vermandois, Duke Godfrey of Bouillon, Lord Baldwin of Brethel, and Count Raymond of Toulouse. Theirs were the armies that successfully fought their way to Palestine and conquered Jerusalem in 1099, and these were the first Western Europeans ever encountered by most of the Greeks, Turks and Arabs living along their route.

From the Middle East, as I have said, various permutations of Frank and franji continued to migrate all the way to the Pacific Ocean. And they may have reached even farther than that — as far as outer space, in fact, it having been claimed that the “Ferengi” of “Star Trek,” a race of greedily capitalistic interstellar traders who travel to the far ends of the universe in order to peddle their wares, ultimately owe their name to the Crusades, too. This theory is not as far fetched as it may at first seem to be, because “Star Trek,” which featured a pan-galactic language called Klingon, had linguists working for it who might have decided to borrow our word for the franji-like creatures of their series. A thousand years after they started out for Jerusalem, the Franks go marching on.

Questions for Philologos can be sent to

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