Wednesday, August 29, 2007

Pakistan: Etymology of a topical toponym

Pakistan (along with its neighbors) has been in the news a good deal lately, especially with the botched raid on the Red Mosque last month, so I thought it might be illuminating to reconsider the etymology of the country’s name. As with so many of the countries in Southwest Asia and North Africa, Pakistan is essentially a constructed nation, and a recent one, as land was divided up and put back together again in the wake of World War II, too often with absolutely no regard for cultural or ideological fault lines – a sort of geopolitical Humpty Dumpty. For Pakistan, part of British India was carved off into the new nation in 1947. These new countries needed new names, and in the case of Pakistan, the story is an interesting one.

Supposing you were to go trolling around in Urdu, and its direct ancestors, Persian and Arabic, for a possible etymology. What would you come up with? The –stan suffix seems a straightforward place to begin as it occurs in so many other toponyms, such as Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Hindustan – and even Kafiristan, as immortalized by Rudyard Kipling.* (Note that, as tempting as it is to suppose so, the Turkish Istanbul is not from the same root; it actually derives from Greek. That’s another story for another day, so in the meantime, I’ll just refer you to They Might Be Giants.) So, the suffix comes from the Urdu stān “a termination denoting place, situation; added to words ending in a vowel, as hindūstān, the place or country of the Hindūs; if the word end [sic] with a consonant, istān is employed, as gul-istān, a rose-garden” [1]. The Urdu stān goes directly back to Persian ستان (i)stán “place” (and still further, back to Sanskrit).

So far, so good. How about the first part, pak–? A very tantalizing possibility, now often adduced, is the Persian پاک pák “pure”, Urdu pāk “pure, clean, upright”. I wonder if this is distantly related to Chinese, specifically Cantonese paak, Guangdang baahk “white” – the source of English bok choy.

So, “land of the pure”, eh? Sounds good. But – it’s wrong. Or at least, it’s folk etymology after the fact. Pakistan is actually an acronym, as deliberately (if more artfully) constructed as the country itself. Choudhary Rahmat Ali coined the name in the middle 1930s, and its actual original meaning referred to the constituent cultures of the region: Punjabi + Afghani + Kashmiri + Sindhi + Balochistani (with the addition of an internal –i– for euphony). Later, when the actual nation was being put together by the diplomats of the Axis, Allied Powers, the British*, Rahmat Ali adjusted the acronym somewhat to incorporate additional regional “props” (e.g., to Iran).

Interesting how the name of the country - a superficially harmonious mélange of otherwise warring components, force-fit together and given a self-complimentary folk etymology after the fact – fits the country itself so well.

* Here’s another fun linguistic note: the kafir in Kafiristan means, basically, “infidel” in Arabic and Persian. The term is still in common (if unexpected) use, in the kaffir lime, whose leaves are a wonderfully aromatic ingredient in some of my favorite cuisines.

[1] Forbes, Duncan. A Smaller Hindustani and English Dictionary. London: Wm. H. Allen & Co., 1861, p.416. Note that Hindustani is a general term which applies both to Urdu and Hindi, essentially the same language, differing only in the use of the Arabic script for the former and the Devanagari script for the latter.

* My friend squire (see the comments) corrected me on this, then corrected my correction (offline). That’s why he gets paid to teach Social Studies and I don’t. But at least my mistakes are proof I don’t just copy my posts from Wikipedia. ;)


  1. Great post, Jase. I'd often heard the P+A+K explanation of the name "Pakistan," but never bothered to confirm whether or not it was true. And "kafir" reminds me of another similar term, "ferengi" (which if I recall has a Farsi root, meaning something like "foreigner") -- a strange name to call oneself *whether or not* one has dumbo ears and a love of gold-pressed latinum. :)

    Speaking of Pakistanis, BTW, there's an interesting debate over whether the term "Paki" should be seen as an insult/racist slur. In Urdu it literally has the meaning you alluded to, of "purity" or "cleanliness," but it acquired a negative connotation in postcolonial England; nonetheless, there's apparently a movement to reclaim the word, much as there is with the "n" word in the U.S., or the term "bindi" (literally, the red dot on the forehead), which was once used exclusively in a derogatory manner to refer to Indians.

  2. Thanks, Gary. And thanks for the comment about ferengi. Now that you mention it, I think I remember hearing the same thing years ago. But looking, now, I don’t see anything to corroborate it. It seems that foreigner is actually اجنبي [ajnabí]. :)

    As to the slur (originally, non-slur), Paki, yeah, that’s an interesting issue. It’s also highly taboo in Canada, I’ve read. And this isn’t the only example of a word that was originally plainly descriptive, and innocent of racist connotation. Polak and Hunyak (the source of honkie, by the way) were nothing more that general adjectives for “Polish” and “Hungarian” in those respective languages. Ditto on the innocent origins of most of the well-known Jewish slurs.

  3. That's fascinating stuff -- I had no idea where "honky" came from. You think George Jefferson was a card-carrying Magyar-hatah? :)

    A little more research turned up something interesting about "ferengi." One source traces the word not to Persia but to Ethiopia, where the term is an Amharic corruption of "ferenji," or "Frenchie." Apparently the French had a heavy presence in Ethiopia from the 1880s through WWI, and that's how the term stuck, gradually expanding to mean all "whiteys" as it were. So Ferengis and Honkies are actually twin branches of the same tree. :)

  4. An Amharic root may make a little bit more sense than a Persian, even though the French also had colonial footholds in parts of Persian empire.

    Now that we’re barking up a different tree, I looked up the Persian for french also, and it’s fairly close, too: فرانسوي [faránsáví]. Ah, but now, looking up the Amharic, it’s not quite so close to *ferenji as I would have thought from your comment. It’s much closer to the Persian, in fact: färänsawi, färänsayña [source]. Hmm. Perhaps what you found is some kind of argot? Or a (secondary) borrowing from English? Or from Italian, if the term is actually more recent?

    In any case, an interesting find, Gary. Thanks!

  5. "Later, when the actual nation was being put together by the diplomats of the Axis Powers"

    I guess the British raj was off looking for some bauxite mines to invade?

    But I quibble. Nice post otherwise! I didn't know about the "P-A-K" acronym. What a great comment on the Europeanization of the colonial reaction.

  6. Yikes, squire! Quibble indeed. I wrote Axis Powers, but of course, I meant Allied Powers. I guess that “Axis of Evil” metaphor has worked its way too deep, and the word just popped out. Nobody else has corrected me, though. And judging by the comments, it’s not because nobody’s reading. :)

  7. Its amazing how you all of you got the etymology of farangi (this is closer to the pronunciation), meaning foreigner in Persian, Arabic and Urdu, wrong. By now ferengi refers to some people in Star Wars. The word farangi dates back to the Crusades and comes from the word Frank who were one of the leading components of the European invaders. Farangi is just an arabisation of Frank. From Arabic this word transmigrated to Persian and Urdu.

  8. Hi Faheem. Thanks for stopping by and leaving a great comment.

    Its amazing how you all of you got the etymology of farangi [...] wrong.

    You’re right: we were getting it wrong. But perhaps you didn’t see my update to this, posted about six weeks ago. There, in the post and the ensuing comments, I think we did much better, don’t you? You do say that the source is Arabic, not Persian; can you point to any documentation of this word’s origins?

    By now ferengi refers to some people in Star Wars.

    Star Trek, actually. Specifically, an alien race introduced with the series, Star Trek: The Next Generation.

  9. Hi Jason,
    Sorry I had not seen your update. You guys did do much better. I will try to find documentation to show that the origin is Arabic rather than Persian but it seems to be obvious as the Crusaders (Franks) came to Arab lands and not to Persia.

    I did mean Star Trek rather than Star Wars. My mistake.

  10. Thanks Faheem! And ...

    I will try to find documentation to show that the origin is Arabic rather than Persian but it seems to be obvious as the Crusaders (Franks) came to Arab lands and not to Persia.

    You’re right: that certainly does make good logical sense. I’m sure we’ve gotten to the bottom of it at last. :)

  11. Hi! ferengy comes from persian farangi which means of frank(french)origin or european and its arabic loan word is afranji

  12. Regarding your statement, "Polak and Hunyak (the source of honkie, by the way) were nothing more that general adjectives for “Polish” and “Hungarian” in those respective languages." I have been diligently seeking references and resources for the etymolylogy of the work HUNYAK and have found conflicting ideas. Would you cite your resources and lead us to your conclusion? I would really appreciate it. I started to use the word on a public message board and started worrying about its political correctness. It's just a word my family used for wild and/or wilful child...

  13. Hi, Pamelia. For which conclusion would you like a source, that hunyak was a general-use adjective, or that it was the likely source of honkie? You say you’ve found “conflicting ideas” on the etymology of hunyak? Did you mean to say, of honkie? I don’t think the etymology of hunyak is controversial.

    In any case, as a next step (one of many possible next steps), have a look at the entry “Magyar”, in the Dictionary of Races Or Peoples, published by the United States Immigration Commission, Washington: Government Printing Office, 1911, p. 92–4.


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