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 while the Farsi-only rule applies to all languages, the real target of his Persian cleansing is English words that have entered the country illegally. Iranians may still use Arabic, the language of the Quran, but English is forbidden.
With a stroke of the presidential pen, Ahmadinejad turned Iranian cabins into “small rooms.” Iranians must call their cell phones “companion phones.” Internet chats, which are not actually permitted in Iran, where computer use is strictly controlled, are to be known as “short talks.” And pizza, which isn’t actually English but Italian, will henceforth be known by a Persian phrase meaning “elastic bread.” A list of 2,000 other replacement words has been published on the Persian Academy’s web page. Because of the Farsi-only rule, no English words appear on the site, only the Farsi equivalents. That is making compliance a problem, since Iranians are having trouble guessing what elastic bread is supposed to replace.
Language purification is nothing new. After the American Revolution, some superpatriots wanted the newly independent United States to get rid of English, the language of the recently-defeated enemy, and replace it with something else. Candidates included Hebrew, considered in the 18th century to be the language of the Garden of Eden; French, thought, especially by the French, to be the language of pure reason; or Greek, the language of the world’s first democracy. But a more realistic patriot argued that it would be easier for the Americans to keep English for themselves and make the British speak Greek.
When the United States entered World War I in 1917, German suddenly became the language of the enemy and it quickly disappeared from American public life. Patriots began calling sauerkraut “liberty cabbage,” a term that fortunately didn’t survive the Treaty of Versailles, while frankfurters became hot dogs, a term that did.
English itself has been replete with French words ever since the unfortunate incident at Hastings in 1066, while in more recent times France has been unsuccessfully fighting the English invasion of its own vocabulary. But when France fell out of favor in the U.S. because it refused to join the American-led Gulf War, French fries became “freedom fries.”
So far as Iran goes, it’s not clear why, instead of deporting the English words that he doesn’t like, the Iranian president didn’t simply take them hostage and offer to trade them for enriched uranium. Nevertheless, Ahmadinejad tossed English out on its ear.
When foreign diplomats are ejected from a country, their homeland often retaliates in kind, and words seem destined to suffer the same fate. It should come as no surprise then that in response to Ahmadinejad's action, the U.S. State Department has been looking for red, white and blue substitutes for the hundreds of Persian words that English has borrowed over the centuries, or that a member of the House of Representatives suggested replacing checkmate, which comes from the Persian game of chess and means ‘the shah is dead,’ by the good old American “gotcha.”
Not to be outdone, patriotic senators have vowed to ditch their pajamas, another Farsi word, and sleep in nightgowns or in the buff.
Orange comes from Persian, and Conservative Florida politicians have begun calling the state’s prize fruit “freedom fruit,” though Georgians are also using freedom fruit for the Georgia peach, since peach comes from the Farsi word meaning “Persia.”
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.
The blogosphere was quick to jump all over this story by starting its own campaign of anti-Iranian rumor (a French word) and innuendo (from the Latin). To wit (from the English, though admittedly it sounds foreign):
- That the Transportation Security Agency has banned Farsi from all carry-on luggage.
- That immigration authorities are circulating a list of prohibited words to all airports and border crossings. The list includes the Farsi word pistachio, which anyone entering the country will have to call “nut-that-is-dyed-red-for-no-apparent-reason.”
- That Purim, a Persian word commonly used to refer to the Old Testament feast of Esther, will be replaced by an international United Nations peacekeeping force (France has already declined to participate).
- That Vice President Cheney issued a fatwa (from the Arabic) ordering the Government Printing Office to replace all references to Farsi with “language-of-one-third-of-the-axis-of-evil.”
- That Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld asked the National Weather Service to abandon the Persian word typhoon in favor of “patriotic wind.”
- And that President Bush, who can’t wait till moderate Iranians replace Ahmadinejad with someone whose name isn’t so hard to say, like, for example, Blair, 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.