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Kneading a meaning
Etymology of Caviar


June 10, 2005

A season or two ago Sabatico and I were engaged in a series of e-mail transactions about etymology of the word “rustic.” I had entertained the idea that the word and its bucolic connotation probably derived from the Persian “rousta” or “roustak,” referring to an equally pastoral and rural setting of a Middle Persian village. To end the correspondence and in his characteristic impatience borne of fatigue, Sabatico declared that enough time had been spent engaging in “charand-o-parand.”

Not wishing to end it all -- I replied with a foray into the meaning of the phrase “charand-o-parand.” It roughly translates in the vernacular as “cock and bull,” nonsense, fiddle-faddle, silly or trifling talk, or “bullshit,” to be perfectly vulgar about it. In its sublime rendering, the origin of the phrase, I believe, is “az charandeh va parandeh goftan,” which literally means “talking about grazers and fliers,” of cows and birds, as it were -- of here and there, or this and that. The contraction of the phrase in the form of “charand” however has come to signify a derisive connotation, meaning absurd, nonsensical or baseless utterance.

A few weeks ago I turned to Encyclopaedia Iranica in order to learn about the etymology of the word “caviar” or “khaviar,” as we say it in Farsi. I was immensely disappointed in what I found. The word “khaviar,” according to the entry, is the alteration or the variant of the Persian “khaya-dar,” which literally means “having eggs,” as in “mahi khaya-dar,” or egg-bearing fish! I thought, well, here is an explanation as charand as it can graze -- a fish story, with some basis in reality and a lot more imagination than even the mightiest parandeh could wing. It takes a lot of khayeh (balls) for a fish to inhabit the perilous Caspian Sea: It takes equal if not larger balls to offer in an end-all scholarly tome an explanation such as that.

In my mind, as well as the poetry of Ferdowsi in which the word also appeared, “khayeh” has heft and a configuration of an appendage, the size of a walnut, plum or grapefruit -- depending on one’s brush with greatness. Because “khayeh” is generally and primarily understood as a male organ, the term mahi khayeh-dar, which connotes in the ordinary sense of the term a male fish, cannot be rationalized as a name for an egg-bearing fish (a female).

To suggest that the roe (fish egg), which resides in the thousands in a female sturgeon or other large fish, is khayeh (testes) is biologically as confused as it gets -- unless of course the male sturgeon too has ova. The explanation in Encyclopaedia Iranica made little sense to me and, therefore, to get to the bottom of it all I consulted the Oxford English Dictionary and Dehkhoda’s lexicon. The first one informed me that the word “caviar” was of uncertain origin. Aha!, I said to myself, here is a void that any partisan of a particular national language can exploit, even if it means to engage in charand-o-parand.

The OED noted that the word “khaviyar” or “haviyar” is found in Turkish and in the 16th century Italian it was “caviale.” According to OED -- because khaviyar has no Turkish root, the word “caviar” in English and other European languages must have derived from the Italian. Dehkhoda, too, noted that the origin of the word “khaviar” seemingly is Turkish or Tatar and all the European languages, with the exception of Russian, say “caviar” from the Italian. The Russians say “ikra.”

I turned to my friend Fereydoun, an Iranian who speaks Azari, to explain to me the influence of the Azeri and Turkish languages on the etymology of caviar. He knew that khaviar was not an Azeri word and did not think that it was Turkish either. Moreover, neither the word “fish” nor “egg” in Azeri sounded anything remotely like khaviar or any part of it. He referred me to his friend, Nazim, a scholar originally from Baku and with a better grasp of such matters. Nazim noted that in Azari and Osmanli (Turkish) tongues the word for fish roe is “kuru” and fish roe (like khaviar) is also called “kurusu.”

With neither Fereydoun nor Nazim laying claim to the roots of khaviar and the Russians sticking to ikra, I was left to my own devices to offer an explanation.

In my research, I bore in mind that not all etymologies can find an explanation in the hoity-toity reference books of closeted pedantic scholars. According to Fereydoun’s point about anthropology of words, some measure of appreciation for the artisanal level of language is most useful. Artisanal literacy or vocabulary is most crude but represents the most sensory form of contact that there is between a local person and the subject. So if I wanted to find the meaning of khaviar I had better seek it in places other than in works of linguists who peddle in “national” languages.

There is no specie of fish known scientifically as khaviar per se, so this excluded for me the possibility that the word may have come from the name of the fish itself. Nor I know of any language in which the word khaviar is not a synonym for “fish egg” or roe.

I turned to Dehkhoda and discovered that the word khayeh (like its synonyms of gand, jand, tokhm, bayzeh, donbalan, tomalan) could mean seed, testes or egg. This seemed to provide an adequate basis for the explanation in Encyclopaedia Iranica. A fish could well be called “mahi khayeh-dar” (literally meaning a fish that has eggs). According to Mahmud Kamalzadeh’s “Survey of the Caspian Sea,” there is, for example, mahi sefid (white fish) for Rutilus frisii kutum, tas mahi (bald fish) for Acipenser guldenstatii, fil mahi (elephant fish) for Huso-huso or Beluga, gav mahi (cow fish) for Gobius caspius, sag mahi (dog fish) for Phoca caspia (because its cry sounds like a puppy’s yelp), ordak mahi (duck fish) for Esox sucius (because its snout reminds of an duck) and the familiar sturgeon uzun burun or deraz kul (long nose, snout) for Acipenser stellatus. So why not call a fish as “roe fish” other than there are other fish and far easier to catch than sturgeon that could have been called as such.

The “scientific” problem with “khayeh-dar” as the basis for caviar is, philologically speaking, how to explain the sound “v” in khaviar. I went looking for a word formation in which “khav” itself was the root. Looking up “kha” in Dehkhoda I did come across the word “khayeh-daneh” as the reference for a testicular or ovarian “bead,” which per Abu Rayhan Biruni (10th/11th century) meant a kind of large pearl the size of a hen’s egg. While it might be possible for a larger roe to be likened poetically to a pearl as to size and translucence, especially in lighter colors of yellow and whitish gray, I cannot think of any sturgeonette agreeing by laws of nature or man to produce a roe the size of a hen’s egg!

In the Gilaki tongue of Gilan, a caviar-- producing province of northern Iran, the word for fish egg is “ashbol” or “ashpol.” According to an explanatory note in Massoud Golzari’s edition of Gregorii Melgunof’s “Travels on the Southern Littoral of the Caspian Sea,” ashbol is massaged and mixed with hen’s egg and fried into a cake or patty. In another preparation, the ashbol-bearing fish is marinated in brine until the fish and roe become salty; the roe is then consumed with kateh (boiled rice) without further ado.

The word “ashbol” is related, I believe, to the fish of the same name -- ashbaleh (asbaleh) or Silurus glanis. According to Kamalzadeh, the fish ashbaleh (also asbaleh) is known in the Mazandaran region as mahi sibili (whiskered fish) because of the whisker-like extension from its mouth area. After the Beluga, it is the second largest fish in the Caspian region and its status as a voracious predator of smaller fish is rendered all the more efficient by its very large mouth. It has a relatively tasty flesh and a long ago the abounding specie especially in winter-time was caught with relative ease near or in the coastal rivers such as at Fereydounkenar, which is located on the coast between Babol and Amol. The size of the fish and ease of catch allowed the fish to enter the diet of the local population and in the process it became known as ashboleh mahi (meaning the “roe fish”) for its bountiful egg output.

There is a huge gap between ashbol and khaviar though, as is between the charandeh and parandeh.

I begin to focus on the process of preparing fish roe for human consumption. To help me do this, I divide the word khaviar into khav and yar and begin to assume that the people who handled the roe and prepared it for consumption also gave this product its name. Therefore, the suffix “yar” in khaviar as in “dar” referred to one associated with (like ist, eer, or er) the product (noun) or process (verb).

The preparation of caviar -- like ashbol -- involves massaging and kneading of the roe with salt. As described by Robert Cullen in his May 1999 article on the Caspian Sea in National Geographic, when the roe is scooped out of the fish’s belly it is placed on top of a nylon screen-sieve. A handler gently massages the mass of roe and supporting tissue as the eggs fall through the sieve onto a finer screen. Another handler takes the strained roe and gently kneads a prescribed amount of salt into the roe until the appropriate texture is obtained.

I turn to Dehkhoda and identify two possible process-based roots for “khav,” as in massaging or preparing ashbol and khaviar. The word “khay” from “kayydan” stands out; it starts with “kha” and it means “to soften by means of chewing under one’s teeth.” The process of massaging and kneading of fish roe being a hand job, I let this word go. I then come upon the word “khav.” It means the nap, fold or grain of cloth, which in Farsi we sound as in the familiar “khab-e parcheh” or a carpet, meaning the direction in which the fiber sleeps/rests. While identified mostly with velvet, most fabrics have this quality and the general term for that in Persian [Tabari, Gilaki] is “khavjiz” and khavjiz itself is mentioned as a kind of cloth that was produced and exported from Sari in northern Iran. Eureka!

I believe the “khav” in khaviar would have been a reference to a cloth of a particular weave that allowed it to be used as a mesh or screen. The khavjiz was used like “safi” before metal sieve or screen was invented or made fashionable for processing roe. Those who handled the fish roe in the sifting and kneading phase with “khav” or “khavjiz” would have been called “khav-yar” or “khav-dar.” This, I submit, is the origin of the word khaviar in Persian and Turkish and “caviar” in the European languages.

If memory serves -- and that is big if these days -- somewhere I have the vague recollection of opening a can of Iranian caviar in the 1960s and having to unfold four folds of a cloth-like material (like tanzif: meshed fabric used for sifting) before exposing the pearly offering. In contrast to this memory, the image that is stamped vividly in my mind belongs to one summer day lounging about the swimming pool at Afshin’s summer place between Shahsavar and Nashtaroud on the Caspian. We sipped cold drinks and engaged in customary tales of charand and parand. A few feet away, the oil from the sturgeon flesh dripped onto the hot coals and the stench of it was rather overbearing. Inside the pool two rather large sturgeons swam impatiently wondering perhaps what shall come of them. No doubt, today, the over-fished sturgeon of the polluted waters of the Caspian Sea is pondering a similar existential question.

Guive Mirfendereski is VP and GC at Virtual Telemetry Corporation since 2004 and is the artisan doing business as Guy vanDeresk ( Born in Tehran in 1952, he is a graduate of Georgetown University's College of Arts and Sciences (BA), Tufts University's Fletcher School (PhD, MALD, MA) and Boston College Law School (JD). He is the author of  A Diplomatic History of the Caspian Sea (2001) >>> Features in

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