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Stories behind Words: Persian

Stories behind Words: PersianWhen I was a student at Edinburgh University, more years ago than I like to admit, I was sitting in my room in halls one evening with the door open, talking to a friend, when a dark skinny man with an impressive Afro and an equally impressive moustache walked past. “Michael,” he said to my friend,  “what are you doing here?” Being a well-brought-up young woman I invited him to join us for coffee, and in the course of the ensuing conversation asked where he was from. “Iran,” was the answer. Iran? Where was that? Kind of Middle East way, I thought. But then there was Iraq too; why give two different countries such similar names? I knew nothing about these places, could not even place them on a map.

Now I was very young and, as you will have noticed, pretty ignorant; and in my defence (this was a very long time ago) these countries were not so much in the news as they are now. In any case, the fog of confusion soon lifted because my visitor explained that he was Persian. Ah, Persian, that was something I did have a handle on. Iran might be a mystery to me, but Persian went with cats, and carpets, and poets and emperors; nightingales and exquisite miniatures and Arabian Nights folk tales; Cyrus the Great, a mighty empire. I knew where I was with Persian. Tell me more.

Well, he did tell me more. The conversation flowed, along with the coffee, on that and many subsequent occasions. Reader, to cut a long story short, I married him (eventually). And he’s still telling me fascinating stories about his homeland all these years later.

What does this have to do with Stories behind Words? Well, as Juliet put it, what’s in a name? What’s in a name is that if he’d said he was Iranian rather than Persian I’d have had to admit my appalling ignorance, and who knows, the relationship might have foundered right there, before we’d even finished our coffee.

About Liz Potter
Liz Potter is a freelance lexicographer, translator and editor. She has contributed to many monolingual and bilingual dictionaries, including the Macmillan range, and has written for the Macmillan Dictionary and Macmillan Dictionary Blog.

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Liz Potter

Liz Potter


  • Liz: This is a fascinating story, and a happy one. I wonder whether he said ‘Persian’ for practical reasons, having encountered such confusion before, or whether he knew that you would have these magical associations and was already fancying his chances….

  • I patronize a restaurant locally that bills itself as Middle Eastern which YOU no doubt understand covers a multitude of locales and cultures and political classifications. The first time I ate there I fell in love with the kubideh and mentioned to our server—I’d already asked: Iranian—how different it was from another restaurant I loved, whose chef was Palestinian. “If I want to buy a cookbook,” I asked, “what should I look for?” He smiled. His answer: “Persian.” Enjoyed your post!

  • A true story always beats a tale, and there is always more to words than meets the eye.

    I remember a line from Antoine de Saint Exupéry´s “The Little Prince” when talking with the fox: “What makes the desert beautiful,” said the little prince, ” is that somewhere it hides a well.”

    People, too, like words, do not come in full view at first sight.

    thanks for sharing your story with us.


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