Confessions of a Farsiholic

Reviewing a one-word epic


Confessions of a Farsiholic
by Ari Siletz

The first time I was fined for saying “Farsi” instead of “Persian” I didn’t fight the ticket because back then the action was all about French. French fries had become “Freedom” fries, ruining a flavorful shortcut to khoresh-e-gheimeh. Flag wavers claimed fried potatoes sliced lengthwise should never have been called French fries in the first place. There were “chips” to go with fried fish in England as early as 1864. Surely the US adopting fries in the 1930s, should have named this calorie bomb after her freedom-loving ally, and not after folks who would leave Iraqis in peace.

The Francophile in me worried that the logic of Iran experts who said the term “Farsi” broke ties with prestigious Persia, could also apply to French culture. I was nervous that Freedom fries, instead of French fries, would confuse historians as to the location of the Louvre and the nationality of Inspector Clouseau. If this renaming becomes a trend, I fussed, Americans would no longer think of Descartes when they eat French toast, or of Voltaire when they look out of French windows. Cardinal Richelieu would never again leap to mind as soon as anyone stuck a tongue in someone else’s mouth.

In this crisis, I reached out to an abridged history of the potato, which tentatively placed fries in Paris in 1840, almost a quarter of a century before the first chips greased the streets of London. I could go back to enjoying khoresh-e- gheimeh without feeling a party to the looting of Iraq’s civilization. More importantly, American English could begin reversing its Orwellian decline.

Throughout this time, though, I kept falling off the “Persian” wagon. Supportive friends promised that love would eventually come to my arranged marriage with this word. Yet I philandered with “Farsi,” and English cheerily egged me on. She gets a kick out of making her speakers and writers squabble. For example, did I tell you about the black eye I got over Star Trek’s “To boldly go where no man has gone before?” English has been on red alert status since the original sci-fi series first came out in the sixties. Is it correct English to insert the adverb “boldly” between “to” and “go?” I was in the coalition that said even in the 23rd century Captain Kirk had no right to split his infinitives. He should have said, “To go boldly where no man has gone before.” We thought we had the opposition finally outgunned, when Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker suddenly decloaked in front of us.

In his book, The Language Instinct, Pinker explained the origin of the taboo against split infinitives, making our side look very silly. Showing off your Latin was a sign of good education in England, and in Latin you can’t split the infinitive even if you wanted to. Latin infinitives are like Farsi “raftan.” Where can you put “boldly” in “raftan?” Surely not “raft boldly an!” But natural English does allow us to boldly split infinitives. So for years over-educated English academics had unnecessarily disfigured their beautiful language with the syntax of Cicero.

The Language Instinct, more than histories of the potato, transformed my lust for the word “Farsi” from a sin to a fact of nature. Though Pinker focuses on English grammar rather than word usage and doesn’t mention Farsi, his book exposes the organic, dynamic, and inborn aspects of human language. Pinker’s work made me think that the English language has adopted “Farsi” for natural reasons, not because Iranians have passed on a bad habit to English speakers.

To find out why English speakers feed “Farsi” but shoo away “Persian,” I spoke with American novelist and prolific short story writer Elliot Fintushel. Fintushel’s prose should never be taken with other amphetamines, but this ultra-modern writer has a subconscious so close to his normal awareness that he can explain why he does or doesn’t choose a particular word. By the way, he knew nothing about The Farsibition when I phoned him.

Ari: "Hello Elliot, what do you think of when I say, 'The Persian language?'”

Fintushel: "Well, uh…Sanskrit!"

This educated and worldly American writer prefers “Farsi” to “Persian” because his image of historic Persia is at odds with his modern interactions with Iranians. He says “Farsi” because his mind can no longer put Iran in a museum. Television, globalization, immigration, Youtube, cheap travel, all conspire to break the “Persian” display glass for him. While the culture of Sohrab allows the old to kill the young, Fintushel ‘s Oedipal culture has no qualms against slipping the dagger of novelty deep into Rostam’s heart. “Persian” withers, “Farsi” flowers. English sighs, remembering her own virgin days when brave men called her “Angelisc.”

As for the Iranian speaker of English, there are also natural reasons why “Persian” sounds like a trademark and “Farsi” the real thing.

First, developmentally. “Farsi” is what our moms said our language was called, and if English wants to imitate us, then she has realized—perhaps by sensing our adamancy—that “Persian” is no longer the right word. Remember, until recently English didn’t have much contact with Iranians except through our classical culture. Never mind that the French don’t use their own word for their language when they speak English. Fintushel’s tongue isn’t allergic to “French” but he does break out in hives with “Persian.” The word “French” doesn’t fight his reality of who the French people are; “Persian” does! Thankfully, the ultimate authority on American English has baptized “Farsi” into the English language and here’s a link that swears to it.

Webster also says that the English word “Persian” primarily refers to ANY of the SEVERAL Iranian languages dominant in Persia. Iranians who tell hapless Webster-toting Americans that they speak Persian are suggesting they may be fluent in several languages including Tajik, Dari and Judeo-Bukharic.

Secondly, there is an organic link between words and voice/body gesturing. Here’s a revealing test for Iranian-American writers and poets: with which concept do you best associate the following sounds? Aakh, oho, evaa, ah’, vaay, digeh, bah’, baabaa. Imperial Persian or Farsi e khodemooni? The interjection I most associate with “Persian” is comedian Maz Jobrani’s famous “meow".

Third, mechanically. Farsi rolls off the tongue better than “Parsi,” or “Persian.” The “P” sound is a sudden plosive consonant; “F” is a smooth fricative, takes less force. In an onomatopoeic sense (the closeness of a sound to its intended meaning), Farsi may reflect our subtler post-Empire maturity better than “Parsi.” Sure, Arabic voice mechanics changed “Parsi “to “Farsi,” but why didn’t it change “Paarsaal” to “Faarsaal?” Yes, we were flattering Arab administrative jargon, but there must have also been a social advantage in the consonant change that somehow served the common speaker. This advantage may not exist today—whatever it was—but it was there. To speculate as to what this utility may have been, poetic ears may notice there is an inclusivity of regional sounds in the lovely name “Khalijeh Fars” that is lost in its unrealistically exclusive—and bumpy-- translation, “Persian Gulf.” When I contemplate why “F” and no longer “P,” I hear songs, not battle cries. I see pens, not swords.

Finally, there are patriotic aspects to using the term “Farsi.” Ironically this has to do with our protective feelings for our classical literature. To an Iranian writing in English, it feels unfair to allow Greece at the height of its splendor to name a language that eventually surpassed Greek in poetic expressiveness. When Herodotus was calling us Persians (Persikos) none of Iran’s classical poets had been born to measure up to Homer, Hesoid and Sappho. But some centuries later, 300 Khayaams kicked ass against a million Greeks. “Persian” reflects Hellenistic cultural supremacy; “Farsi” starts the clock when we had our strongest claim to high culture, documented by our own historians.

In our day-to-day experience “Persian” covers just a small subset of the Farsi that buzzes around our ears. Colloquially we may call it Farsi e Aflaatooni. But this Persian of the distinguished Yarshater, Davis and Nicholson is just one bee in the bustling hive of contemporary Farsi. In fact the other bees are so busy making up new words for modern nuances, they sometimes steal from other languages. Young people occasionally use the English word “money” when they covet a hard-to-afford luxury, and the traditional “pool” when they buy gum. They use the English “number” for digits that dial a date, and the old “shomareh” when they call their parents. Among a different group, the Arabic proper name “Zeid,”--Farsi equivalent of “some dude”-- now also comes with a Russian suffix: “Zeidowfski!"

Sometimes there is ethnic influence. "Daaf" for girl is Kalimi Farsi, so is “Zaakhaar” for “boy,” occasionally meaning, ”mate” in the Australian sense. There are new descriptive verbs like “Yazeed shodan” as in to suddenly explode into anger—from a mean character in Shiite plays—but we also have “love tarakaandan” for public display of affection.

Haveej is used for street cleaners—refers to uniform color, as does kaaktus for police. BBC can be a spy or a cell phone. To this add the journalistic and technical vocabulary factories that coin Farsi expressions daily like the Feds print money, making my Farsi dictionary as useless as a stack of dollars. One Nobel Prize winner throws around words like faraa ravesh (methodology) and shahrvand (citizen). Remind me, which Persian dynasty popularized the word shahrvand? If all this activity makes your head spin, you need a daroon paalaa (exorcist).

In this dynamic linguistic community, I speak a variant that could be termed "Farsi e Dolaari." Yet I am aware that there are Javaads, Ghazanfars, Manijehs and Shahlaas stuck in Tehran traffic in their Jaaroo barghee (vacuum cleaner), jaa saaboni (soap dish), and pejhoo kaarmandi (Dilbert mobile). They watch film e aamoozeshi(over 21 “documentaries”) and spend esken, money, peel, maayeh.

There are narm afzaar (software) geeks kleeking away on their raayaanehs (computers) building taarnamaas (websites). After I explain to Fintushel about the double entendre in daroon gozaasht (input) and beeroon daad (output), you would have to drag him to Egypt and waterboard him before he gives up “Farsi” for a word that conjures up Sanskrit to his readers.

To be sure in academic circles where precision is more important than expressiveness, “Persian” is an indispensable technical term. But should Persian literature academics dictate to English speaking writers, poets, casual speakers, standup comics, or rappers, which English words are allowed? Would they bully little Luke on Valentine’s Day if he’s hard up for something to rhyme with “Marcy?” The attempt reveals a disappointing absence of communication with the social science building next door where they study how communities create and use language. The intrusion of our culture’s dictatorial vices into the common man’s English is ungracious, whereas our tolerant and humble flip side is magnetic.

The marketing approach, promoting “Persian” as a brand name, has been harmful to Iran’ s sincere modern culture. For example, my interview with contemporary Iranian-American playwright Sepideh Khosrowjah rankled a commenter who was frustrated about the article’s use of the term “Farsi.” This commenter obviously has an interest in the arts or he/she wouldn’t have read the piece. In the spirit of this shared love, I propose we redouble our efforts in encouraging our living cultural treasures, even as we struggle to rescue our threatened antiquity. Artists like Khosrowjah wield a formidable language. They contribute to one day making “Farsi” as prestigious as “Persian.”

The commenter asks rhetorically if my use of “Farsi” has a political motive.

You bet!


Some notes:

1.For an informative and entertaining study on Tehrani Farsi vernacular see Farhag va Loghaateh e Zaban Makhfi, by Dr. Seid Mehdi Samaai.

2.The touching and beautiful Zoroastrian Gathas do compete with, and arguably transcend, ancient Greek poetry, but their number is few in comparison and their subjects limited to devotional concerns.

3.To explore why Greeks had historians and pre-Islamic Iranians had only mytholgy, see anthropologist Donal E. Brown's work on hereditary caste societies.


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more from Ari Siletz

Politics of Labels

by Farsi Speaker (not verified) on

That in 2008 we are arguing about whether or not the language we speak today as Iranians should be labeled Farsi or Persian is a testament to the power of our Persian roots and the fortitude of our creed. More than a millennia of Islamic influence has not been able to overwrite our pre-Islamic mythology, even as the language we speak today has been infused in part with Arabic for more than a thousand years and many more of us engage in rituals at the mosque rather than the atashkadeh. We are still celebrating Noruz and Chahar Shanbeh Soori, despite the efforts of the Islamic Republic to discourage such pagan celebrations, and Iranians continue to be a tour de force around the globe in every significant sphere of human activity where intellectual prowess is a prerequisite. We are still Persians, but who can deny the countless influences that have made us, our language, our culture to evolve. Persia did not exist in a vacuum and neither does today’s Iran. Languages are living and dynamic organisms and the language of Iran is no exception. Proponents of the Persian label for what we Iranians speak today are engaged perhaps at a sub-conscious level, or perhaps not, in a kind of reverse linguistic engineering for political reasons. If this debate was not cast against a backdrop of the current political and economic malaise in the world, one could presume that the comments that have been made stem from a proclivity to linguistic correctness or at best a genuine interest in the paleolinguistic study of Farsi, but it is obvious there is genuine fear on the part of Iranians about the sanctity of their identity in the face of ferocious Western propaganda about Iran. This fear is well founded and we Iranians are better served in this toxic atmosphere by not resorting to propaganda of our own when we reference Persia and Persian as though we are invoking a magic potion, but by understanding and explaining why Iran is relevant and important to today’s world. Iran is the sole remaining ideological powerhouse of the globe aside from the United States.

Ari Siletz

For khodadaad

by Ari Siletz on

Salaam khodadad,

The point about history vs mythology bothered me too, which is why I was careful in my phrasing on note 3, using the word "explore," rather than "find out."

Let's define history as writing that is fairly accurate as to time and place (though not necessarily in interpretation), has a secular/humanist slant, and cites previous sources with a critical view relative to say, anachronisms.

The Greeks and the chinese developed these qualities in their national consciousness.



I am hard pressed to find such lists as above for ancient Iranian hitorians. The defeat of the Ashkaanian by the Saaassanian, for instance, is described in legend as a battle with a big worm. And of course the Shahnameh is a history of sorts. But post-Empire, Iran had historians in the standard nonmytholgical sense.

Also I missed your earlier comment. Did you use your usual Avatar?


I agree with Ms Daravan that

by Anonymous! (not verified) on

I agree with Ms Daravan that the words "Persian" and "Farsi" have precise linguistic meanings. Both are legitimate English words, and are not synonymous. This article--and this feud--is more about the colloquial use of these words.

Maybe it matters less what we call our language, and more what we use it to say. Here's one I'd like to hear more often from Persian speakers and Farsiholics alike: "I may disagree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it."

...Norooz mobarak!

Khodadad Rezakhani

Oh Dear!

by Khodadad Rezakhani on

Ari: just saw your note three. Oh dear! Do you really believe that? Greeks had historians and pre-Islamic Iranians had only mythology? As I did not get a response to what I wrote about the language, I am quite curious to know if you really subscribe to the notion reflected in note 3...

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

Salaam "I espeaking Newzealandi now, not Englsih,"

Sorry about the "baseej" jab. Didn't mean to call you names; I was just saying how I was feeling. Let me put on a differnt hat so we can speak the language of speculative politics in which you seem fluent.

At a time when Iran's ethnic unity is being deliberately provoked by outsiders, I feel "Persian" is the wrong direction for me to go. There are Azari, Lur, Baluchi, Kurd,Turkeman Iranians who don't necessarily consider themselves ethnically Persian, but use Farsi as our common linguistic medium. "Farsi," as the article tries to argue is a more inclusive word that avoids the Perso-centric trap. English is wisely responding to Iran's real ethnic makeup by changing an exclusive term to a more representative, democratic, and peaceful word. 

Here's a conspiracy theory: Why do you think Google is provoking us with "Arabian Gulf?" Maybe to expose our Perso-centric attitudes to Iran's restive ethnic groups. This is not very different than the Mohammad cartoon provocation. One commenter below mentioned dirty politics. Dirty indeed!

O K, now I can take off this hat, and go back to facts and analysis, rather than shekami speculation. Once again, I apologize for ticking you off.


That was quite a nasty spin

by I espeaking Newzealandi now, not Englsih (not verified) on

That was quite a nasty spin Ari "baseej convention", "bad hejaab".

It IS interesting that you go out of your way to try to write your insistence to change the name of a language in English, which has not been changed and is called Persian, into something new. Only you and some Hollywood and mass media senior executives seem to be very concerned for this specific language's name in English only (you have no concerns with the name of the languages of English, Hebrew, Yiddish, French, German, Spanish, Latin etc. to be changed into different varying new names).

As an example why isn't there an attempt by some to change the name of French into several new and different names per country, which their main language is French?

Spare us for your supposed care for "modern Iran and its modern culture", what a spin. You don't have the same concern for the names Jewish and Hebrew and Yiddish being "modernized", but you only care for the name of Iran's language in English being changed into different new and unfamiliar names (while they are the same language and have been called Persian in the English language for centuries). If you claim your concern is sincere and without any ulterior motives, your comments do not show it at all. Now go ahead and twist issues with another one of your "bad hejaab" and "baseej convention" remarks.

The very important question is this, why is the name of Iran's language singled out by certain
* supposed and self-proclaiming "modern-caring" luminaries only?


What is important

by Troneg on

Parsi or Farsi is it important ?! This language was born after DARI language evolved with Arabic Alphabets. so you can say Paris or Farsi.

A real patriot Iranian is who believe and act the 3 pilars :

Goftar Nik, Kerdar Nik, Pendar Nik

He can say what he wants.

Other point, If I were English, I'd sue americans for demolishing Shakspear language instead following them in Irak.

And to finish, Do you realy beleive that americans think or even are aware about Descarte and Voltaire :-)

Ari Siletz


by Ari Siletz on

Doostan, you're making me feel like a "bad hejaab" at a Baseej convention. No one is telling you never to say "Persian" again. Befarmaayeed, Khaaheshmand ast, chaakereem. Just be tolerant of the rest of us who say "Farsi." Some of us have our reasons, as above, and its not to rob anyone of honor.


Some people will never get it

by Abarmard on

Until it's too late and we have lost yet another one of our identity. Some years later we would hear that the true Persians lived in Turkey today and here we go again. Didn't that happen to us before?

Of course that's just a funny example to remind you of a bigger picture a head.

Only a donkey falls in the same hole twice. That does explain our cultural attitude!


Farsi is NOT the popular choice

by Anonymous user (not verified) on

Regarding JJ's claim about "Farsi" being the popular choice (As if popular meant correct!):

A simple search in Google gives:

~41,600,000 results for "Persian"
~21,500,000 results for "Farsi"

and when specifically searching for the language:

~600,000 results for "Persian language"
~150,000 results for "Farsi language"

So much for the popularity issue!


"Farsi is the popular choice

by I espeaking New Zealandi now, not English (not verified) on

"Farsi is the popular choice whether we like or not" J. Javid

Says who? Jahanshah did you go and take a poll among the 70 plus million Iranians on their opinion on this?

This whole thing stinks with very dirty politics and some Iranians and Iranian-Americans are ignorantly & innocently playing along without even knowing it.

If some of the innocently ignorant were aware that even the very prestigiuos Smithsonian Institute did not consider Iran and Persia as the same country up to about 15 years ago (per their official tour guides with masters & PHD degrees), they would open their eyes and think twice on changing names.

Ari per your effort in your long comment here, you and your friend think it's OK and approve a name change for the name of Iranians' language in English. Ari, why not change the name of Hebrew into something alien and new in the English language? you wouldn't like that, would you?


Persian not Farsi

by Behrouz (not verified) on

This is an email forward that I received recently.I think it is relevant to this article and that is why I am posting it.

Subject: perisan not farsi;

My name is Fereshteh Davaran and I am writing my Ph.D. dissertation in the NES department at U. C. Berkeley and teaching Persian in Diablo Valley College.

I wanted to ask you, as Iranians, not to use "Farsi" when you refer to Persian language in an English text. Persian is the only language that is currently called by three different names (Farsi, Tajik and Dari) in English. You do not see anybody calling German, Almani or Deusche in English? You do not hear anybody call English, Irish or Australian or for that matter American.

Categorizing languages has a scientific method. According to Linguistics, the Persian language belongs to the Iranian branch of Indo-Iranian languages. The Iranian branch is composed of many languages such as Persian, Sughdi, Kurdish, Parthian, etc. The Persian branch has different dialects such as Tajik, Dari, Farsi, Isfahani, etc. To call Persian, Farsi is just as bad as calling Persian Gulf, Arabian Gulf or even the Gulf.

In the absence of an interested government, we Iranians have to defend our heritage more vigorously.

"Persia" is what Greek historians called Parsis at the time of the Achaemenids, and like all historic proper names its antiquity is its best defense.

Over the centuries "Persian" was used to refer to the whole country of Iran and therefore could be used interchangeably with Iranian.

Fars and Farsi is the Arabic form of Parsis and Persia. Since Arabs did not have P sound, they turned Pars to Fars.

Calling the Persian language by the three names of Farsi, Dari and Tajik is quite a recent phenomenon.

As I said, linguists have agreed to call the language of Darius and Cyrus Old Persian, the language of Sasanids, Middle Persian and our language "Persian," which makes it the grand child of Old Persian and the Child of Middle Persian (Pahlavi).

All three stages of Persian language (old, middle and present) belong to Iranian branch of Indo-Iranian languages.

Dari, Tajik, Farsi, Isfahani and Khurasani are different dialects of the Persian language, unlike Kurdish and Sughdian which are different languages in the Iranian branch of Indo-Iranian languages.

Would it make sense to call Arabic, Iraqi or Egyptian, although they are three different dialects and have many differences?
Would the Arabs allow it?


See, that's the problem

by Khodadad (not verified) on

I understand and support if your argument for "Farsi" is against those who are afraid that "Farsi" does not reflect the ancient history or the culture or all the other BS. But my problem is not that. Parts of it is actually with the stuff that people misunderstand. Take this, written in your article:

"Webster also says that the English word “Persian” primarily refers to ANY of the SEVERAL Iranian languages dominant in Persia. Iranians who tell hapless Webster-toting Americans that they speak Persian are suggesting they may be fluent in several languages including Tajik, Dari and Judeo-Bukharic."

See the problem? Persian is not "ANY OF THE SEVERAL IRANIAN LANGUAGES", Webster is wrong! Persian is ONE of the Iranian languages (read my Iranian Language Family article: // PERSIAN does not equal IRANIAN in the linguistic sense. Persian, Kurdish, Pashto, Baluchi, Gilaki, Ossetic, Wakhi, Ishkashami, Yaghnobi, etc. are all members of the Iranian Language Family, and that one is a branch of Indo-Iranian, itself the major eastern branch of the Indo-European languages. That part is just facts, no politics or nostalgia for ancient Persian glory involved.

Then, Tajiki, Dari, and the Persian of Iran (the one your mom spoke) ARE all the same language, just dialects of it. The difference between the Persian of your mom and the Tajiki is less than the difference between the New York drawl and Broad Scots. Now, keep that in mind that again, Persian of your mom and Kurdish of Mr. Sharafkandi ARE NOT the dialects of the same language, but two languages within a family. That one is the difference between the New York drawl and the Amsterdam Dutch...

So, then to get back to the Persian vs. Farsi, my problem is not with the nostalgia. It is simple and has been expressed before, and it is more about the English language than the "Farsi" or "Persian" issue: in English, the language of Germany is called German, not Deutsch. Spanish is not called Espanol, Greek is not called Elliniki, Swedish is not called Svenska. So, Persian should not be called Farsi either. Languages have "native" names (English) and then names in non-native languages (Ingilisi). This is not the split-infinitve law of Cicero, but the plain and simple law of common sense and linguistic integrity.


"Farsi" is NOT fine

by Anonymous user (not verified) on

I, for one, will only start calling this language "Farsi" rather than "Persian" when people start saying "Deutsch" and "Francais" in place of "German" and "French". Saying "Farsi" in English is a mistake, and this article changes nothing about that.
JJ, I disagree, "Farsi" is NOT fine, and it IS necessary to fight its use. We should be ashamed of ourselves for so carelessly destroying our heritage.



by manesh on

You can't intellectualize the mistake of using Farsi instead of Persian any more than you can if you called the Persian Gulf " Farsi Gulf".

Your personal preferance,  and all the afterthoughts to justify it, are besides a people's entitlement to their international heritage.  You, as an individual, should not make that choice for a people, for all the generations to come.

What else can be expected of one of the most feeble, inconsequential generations in Iranian history than to throw their own heritage away?  

Jahanshah Javid

Farsi is fine

by Jahanshah Javid on

Ari, your argument will win the hearts and minds of many Persian lovers. At least it will make them less dogmatic.

I have always tried to keep "Persian" as a standard on this site. I believe it is the correct -- and nicer -- English name for the language Iranians speak.

I find it funny that many put down "Persian" because it supposedly sounds pompous or conjures images of Persian empire, carpets and cats. And what's wrong with that? "Persian" is one of only a few things we have that does not have what we call "baar e manfi" (negative connotation?). So for academic, aesthetic and cultural reasons, "Persian" should be the standard. But a mass migration from Iran after 1979 has changed everything. When speaking to non-Iranians, the vast majority of us say we speak "Farsi" without hesitation or political motive. It comes naturally.

Fighting the Farsi wave is futile and really unnecessary. It's not the end of the world. Farsi is the popular choice whether we like or not. And that's fine with me. So is Persian. People will call it what they want not what they should.

Your piece is so beautifully written, and with so much wit and common sense, that it SHOULD be remembered as the day Farsi matured and stood up to Papa Persian.

Thank you!