“Persian” is a Lovely Word

By Maeve Maddox

Amir Bahmanyari raises a question about the use of the word “Farsi” in English:

. . . there is a well defined word “Persian” in English which refers to the language of the Iranian people. Why is it that the Arabic word “Farsi” [is] used in daily communications by the English speaking people instead of the English word “Persian”?

I suspect that “political correctness” may have something to do with it. Since many immigrants from the Middle East refer to the language as “Farsi,” it may be that journalists and others think they’re being ethnically respectful by doing the same.

Until fairly recently the word “Farsi” was little known to English speakers. Even though the country formerly known as Persia took on its international identity as “Iran” in 1935, the language spoken there continued to be known as “Persian.”

As Amir points out in the rest of his comment,

Farsi” is an Arabic version of the original word “Parsi” in which the letter “P” was replaced with an “F” by the Arabic speaking people. . . there is no letter “P” in Arabic . . .

Although the people of Iran have always called their country “Iran,” English speakers and most other outsiders referred to it as Persia until 1935. The change came at the suggestion of the Persian diplomatic delegation in Berlin. The suggestion may have been prompted by the fact that the word “Iran” means “land of the Aryans” and the word “Aryan” was very popular in Germany at that time.

In English the words Persia and Persian have connotations of exotic beauty. The words suggest Persian carpets, Persian cats and Persian literature. The name “Iran” has less romantic connotations

Referring to the Persian language as “Farsi” is a recent development that not all speakers of Persian are happy with.

According to the ruling body for the language, The Academy of the Persian Language and Literature (Farhangestan), the term Farsi is an incorrect term for the Persian Language; an analogy would be requesting that the German language be called Deutsch by those who speak English. —Wikipedia

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9 Responses to ““Persian” is a Lovely Word”

  • Nancy

    I used to work with a lady from Iran and she always referred to herself as Persian. She definitely did not like to be called Iranian.

  • Alice

    In Rudyard Kipling’s “Just So Stories”, there is a tale about why the rhino has a wrinkly skin. It seems he took it off to go swimming on a very hot day and, while the rhino was enjoying his swim, a “Parsi man” came by with a crumbcake. The Parsi man sat on the rhino skin and ate his cake. When the rhino finished his swim and put his skin back on, it was very itchy due to the crumbs. The rhino rubbed up against anything he could find to relieve the itch and, in the process, permanently stretched his skin. That’s why, to this day, the rhino has a wrinkly skin.
    I was young when I first read this story and was both fascinated and baffled by the term “Parsi man” Looking it up revealed that a Parsi man was a man from Persia. I was still left a bit baffled.

  • Aydın

    … And the term “Persian Chauvinism” which is getting popular day by day among non-Persian Iranians. Things that you write here are forbidden to be written in Iran in any language except “Persian”, though Persians hardly make %35 of the population(see ethnologue.com). This has nothing to do with the current government. It has been like this for 90 years.
    Farsi, as a language, was called Dari until 1000 AD. It has never called Persian. The language which was spoken before Farsi was Pahlavi, which was used until about 200 years ago.

  • ghazala

    lovely post! looking forward to more on cultural histories of words and their usage.

  • Eric

    It’s a bit funny to me how Iranians get upset over being called, “Iranians”. It would be fine in calling them Persian if only Persia still existed…which doesn’t. It’s like calling Iraqis of today…Babylonians.

  • Nader

    there might be something wrong about the correct pronunciation of the word “Iran” among foreigners, which may seem offensive to the residents of this country which previously was the main part of the most powerful governor of time, “the great Persia”,
    the correct pronunciation of this countries name is something like ‘eeran” not “I-run”.

  • Alice

    I learned to pronounce Iran as if it were the words “ear on”. I learned it from an Iranian colonel who was stationed at Ft Sam Houston TX a very long time ago. He was a student of my father’s and a very gracious man.

  • AE

    In tody Iran and Afghanistan, there was two countries by the name of Farce (Iran) and Ariana (Afghanistan). The both countries was invated by Nader Afshar (he was from Turky) when he kaild, Ahmad Shah Baba (Afghan) which he was the camondar of Afshar, took Afshar family to Farce (Iran). and Afshar wife told hem you are the king now. Ahmad Shah Baba (Afghan) start to control these places, then both countries divide from each other. He changed the name of Ariana to Afghanistan for same reasons, so the Ariana is afghanistan. Iran stolen the Ariana and forget the real name of present Iran, which is Farce or Persia. by the ways Aryans are the people of Afghenistan they called their selfes ,Aryaie, as you see some of afghans names/surnames are Aryan, Ariana, Arya.

  • Mehran

    Its funny how some folks tend to make up their own versions of history. just see the Wikipedia page for Iran and that gives you all you may need to know.

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