by Dennis Baron
In a stunning response to what he sees as American meddling in Middle Eastern affairs, Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad ordered the immediate deportation of all foreign words in the Persian language and their replacement in all government and cultural communications with special Farsi terms and expressions approved by the Persian Academy, Iran’s language watchdog.
Ahmadinejad’s goal was language purification, and the target of his Persian cleansing was English words that had entered the country illegally. With a stroke of the presidential pen, Iranian cabins have been turned into “small rooms.” Cell phones must be referred to as “companion phones.” Internet chats, which are not actually permitted in Iran, where computer use is strictly controlled, are now to be known as “short talks.” And pizza, which isn’t English but Italian, will henceforth be known by a Persian phrase meaning “elastic bread.”
A list of 2,000 replacement words has been published on the Persian Academy’s web page. But because of Ahmadinejad’s Farsi-only order, there is no English version of the site. According to the Academy, while Iranians are not supposed to use any foreign words at all, they can still use Arabic words, because while Iranians are careful to point out that they are not Arabs, they are, most of them, Muslims, and Arabic is the sacred language of the Quran. Also there’s no Farsi alternative for Israel on the Academy’s list, not because Iran is trying to stay neutral in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but because Ahmadinejad has decided that the best way to defeat Israel is by pretending that it doesn’t exist.
It’s not clear why, instead of deporting the English words he doesn’t like, the Iranian president didn’t simply take them hostage and offer to trade them for enriched uranium to advance the nuclear program Ahmadinejad denies he has.
When foreign diplomats are ejected from a country, their homeland often retaliates in kind, and words seem destined to suffer the same fate. When France fell out of favor in the U.S. because it refused to join George Bush and Tony Blair in their Iraq invasion, French fries became “freedom fries.” Now that Iran is busy banning English, House majority leader Denny Hastert (R. Illinois) has urged his congressional colleagues to substitute red, white and blue words for the hundreds of Persian words that English has borrowed over the centuries. Hastert announced that checkmate, which comes from the Persian game of chess and means ‘the shah is dead,’ will be replaced by “ayatollah-dead.”
Sixteen patriotic senators have vowed to ditch their pajamas, another Farsi word, and sleep in nightgowns or in the buff. Florida’s state fruit, the orange, is a Persian word, and Gov. Jeb Bush wants to rename it “freedom fruit,” though Georgia governor Sonny Perdue is also using freedom fruit for the Georgia peach, since peach comes from the Farsi word meaning “Persia.”
An American watchlist of dangerous Farsi words will be circulated to all airports and border crossings. It includes pistachios, which will now be called “nuts-that-are-dyed-red-for-no-apparent-reason.” Purim, a Persian word commonly used to refer to the Jewish feast of Esther, will now be known as “hang-the-mullah” day.
America’s National Academy of Sciences is expected to come up with an official list of patriotic English words to replace the other common Persianisms in our language: calabash, dervish, diadem, divan, gherkin, indigo, jasmine, marzipan, mummy, naphtha, organdy, pagoda, paradise, saffron, sandal, sherbet, talc, talisman, and tulip.
In response to Ahmadinejad’s action, Vice President Cheney issued a fatwa ordering the Government Printing Office to replace all references to Farsi with “language-of-one-third-of-the-axis-of-evil.” Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked the National Weather Service to abandon the Persian word typhoon in favor of “patriotic wind.” And President Bush announced at a Rose Garden press conference that instead of eating pita, he’ll be calling his favorite Middle Eastern snack “elastic bread” from now on.
Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois.