The word Frum today has taken on negative overtones. But it wasn’t always like that. It used to be a generic term in Yiddish simply meaning religious.
Today however the word Frum has become a very subjective term and is commonly used in many ways. Sometimes it is used in a positive sense and sometimes it is used in a negative sense. Sometimes it is used in neutral ways. I have used it in all these ways myself.
To generically say about another Jew that he’s Frum usually just means that he is Shomer Shabbos, keeps Kosher and basically follows Halalcha.
To say that someone is Frum can also be a compliment when talking about them to other religious people in the context of a society that influences people away from religious observance.
In our day the word has taken on more of a negative overtone. Is it deserved?
I think maybe it is. That is in part because of the famous Mussar about ‘Frumkeit’ given by R Shlomo Wolbe in his Sefer Alei Shor. Frumkeit is something he opposed.
Frumkeit is doing something religious for show. That is - when a person is more concerned with his image than he is with the actual religious purpose of what he is doing. This is akin to Yuhara. Yuhara is best explained by the famous metaphor about a pig.
There are two requirements for an animal to be Kosher. One is that it has to chew its cud. The other is that it must have split hooves. If an animal has only one of these requirements, it is just as unkosher as if it had none. A pig has one of them - split hooves. But it does not chew its cud. However a pig will often stick out his front paws. That is because it wants people to think it is Kosher and shows off that it has one of the requirements for Kashrus. Of course we all know that a pig is not a Kosher animal. But it pretends to be. That is Yuhara.
If I understand correctly Yeshiva University Rosh Yeshiva and head of Ezras Torah, R’ Dovid Lipshutz, ZTL was opposed to wearing one’s Tzitzis out because he felt it was Yuhara - that it was not being done L’Shma but instead to show off one’s Frumkeit. Rav Ahron Soloveichik felt the same way. (In fact I think that all Briskers feel that way and do not wear their Tziitis out. This - despite the fact that the Chafetz Chaim promotes doing so in his Magnum Opus, the Mishna Berura).
Of course until the late 60s or early 70s it was not all that common to do that. Today most Bnei Torah do wear their Tzitzis out so Yuhara probably no longer applies.
Although I never heard him say it personally I have heard it said in Rav Ahron’s name that he would often say in Yiddish, ‘Frum is a Galach (priest), Ehrlich is a Yid’. He felt it was far more important to be sincere in one’s observances than to adopt many extraneous religious practices.
In our world today Frumkeit has been raised to the level of Mitzvah in some circles. Chitzonius – externals - have surpassed even Mitzvah observance. Witness the following.
I’ve seen some Roshei Yeshiva defend or at least tolerate some really bad behavior of their Talmidim (including getting drunk and rowdy at weddings) because they wore the ‘uniform (black hat, black velvet Yarmulke, black pants, white shirt etc.). I have heard people from that community defend the attitude of such Roshei Yeshiva and say that a ‘bad boy’ from their circles is better than a ‘good boy’ from modern Orthodox circles like Yeshiva University.
Why? Because even though they were bad, they had the correct Hashkafos. The proof of that is that by wearing the uniform they identified with that Hashkafa. But even the best students in YU no matter how Ehrilch - had the wrong Hashkafos and were Krum.
I believe that is why the word Frum has taken on negative overtones. And I believe that Rav Wolbe saw right through it and that’s why he opposed Frumkeit. If only the world of the right would get over themselves and - like Rav Wolbe - see that Ehrlichkeit is more important than Frumkeit, we would be living in a far better world. And attitudes like the one above explaining bad behavior would end.