Persian contains many idiomatic phrases, expressions and compound verbs which utilise the common body parts like سر sar ‘head’, چشم cheshm ‘eye’, دل del ‘heart’, پشت posht ‘back’, and پا pā ‘foot’. These body parts often carry a multitude of different meanings, such as when an Iranian person says ‘heart’ but really they are talking about their ‘stomach’, or says ‘eye’ but really they just mean ‘okay’.
In this first blog post we will tackle the head. There is really no better place to start than with سر sar ‘head’, because one of the many meanings of سر sar is indeed ‘start’ or ‘beginning’.
Sar is a native Persian word that is believed to be derived from the Proto-Indo-European stem *ḱerh2-, which originally carried the meaning of ‘horn’ or ‘head, top’. From this, we can connect sar to words in other languages which descended from the same root, such as cerebrum, cerebral, cornet (a horn-like instrument), cervus (Latin for ‘deer’), and Stirn (German for ‘forehead’). Sar = cerebrum relation is the most straightforward as the two words clearly have a similar meaning as well as a similarity in sound.
The Persian Language Online team has already provided an extensive collection of ‘Compound Verbs Using سر’ for you to peruse. Click here to study and review the 30 compound verbs which use سر.
The word سر sar can be broken down into six primary categories in terms of meaning:
This can be seen as the most basic or primary meaning of sar, and is probably the first usage of سر sar that you came across when studying Persian. Some examples of سر sar having this meaning include: با سر اشاره کردن bā sar eshāre kardan or سر تکان دادن sar takān dādan ‘to nod one’s head’; سربرهنه sar-berahne ‘bareheaded’; دو سر do sar ‘double faced/headed’ such as چکش دو سر chakosh-e do sar ‘a double headed hammer’; سرگیجه sar-gije ‘vertigo’; and سردرد sar-dard ‘headache’. Another useful phrase is سرم شلوغ است saram sholugh ast ‘I’m really busy’ (lit: ‘my head is busy’).
When the word سر sar is referring to a person, it can be pluralised using the ــان -ān plural suffix used for people and animates. The other meanings of سر sar do not allow this -ān suffix to be used, so if you see or hear سران sarān ‘heads’, you can safely deduce that the intended meaning is in fact ‘leaders’. When سر sar has this meaning it is often found prefixed to another word to show someone’s rank or title, such as سرلشکر sar-lashkar ‘major-general’, سرفرمانده sar-farmānde ‘commander-in-chief’ or سرجوخه sar-jukhe ‘corporal’.
The clearest example of سر sar having this meaning is in the word سرچشمه sar-cheshme ‘source’.
This meaning is a lot more prevalent in Tajiki, where the verb سر کردن/сар кардан sar kardan ‘to start’ is commonly used in place of the Iranian equivalent شروع کردن shoru’ kardan. So, in Tajikistan one would say سر کنم؟/сар кунам? sar kunam? ‘Shall I start?’, whereas in Iran one would say شروع کنم؟ shoru’ konam? ‘Shall I start?’. It’s worth noting that you can always opt to use the verb آغاز کردن/оғоз кардан āghāz kardan ‘to begin, to start’ instead, which can be used across all Persian varieties with no change in meaning.
Some other examples of سر sar meaning ‘beginning’: سر زمستان sar-e zemestān ‘the beginning of winter, early winter’; and سرآغاز sar-āghāz ‘beginning, foreword, preface’.
This extension of meaning also exists in English in exactly the same way as in Persian, such as with the word سرتیز sar-tiz ‘arrowhead’. Other examples include: سرانگشت sar-angosht ‘fingertip’; سر و ته sar-o-tah ‘topsy-turvy’; سرزمین sar-zamin ‘homeland’ (i.e. ‘the highest land’); and سر sar meaning ‘lid’ or ‘cover’, such as سرپوش sar-push ‘cover’.
The word سر sar can also be used in Persian as a preposition to mean ‘at (a place)’, such as in the phrase من سر کار هستم man sar-e kār hastam ‘I’m at work’. Note that when used as a preposition in this way, سر sar requires ezāfe. This locative meaning of sar also gives rise to another preposition: سراسرِ sarāsar-e ‘throughout, all over’, such as سراسرِ دنیا sarāsar-e donyā ‘all over the world’. There are two more phrases somewhat related in meaning: سر به سر sar-be-sar ‘entirely’ and سرتاسر sar-tā-sar ‘over all’.
This seems to contradict the earlier meaning of ‘start’ or ‘beginning’. But don’t panic: سر sar meaning ‘end’ is only found in a handful of words, the most obvious being سرانجام sar-anjām ‘finally’. This meaning also shows up in several compound verbs, such as: سر آمدن sar āmadan, به سر رسیدن be sar residan and به سر آوردن be sar āvardan, all meaning ‘to come to an end, to reach an end’.
There is one more really great phrase containing سر sar which doesn’t neatly fit into any of our six semantic categories: سر و صدا sar-o-sedā ‘noise, ruckus’. It’s also worth pointing out that this post is by no means exhaustive: please do leave us a comment if you can think of any more meanings of سر sar in Persian!
Stay tuned for the next body part blog post all about دل del ‘the heart’!
Click below to take our quick ‘Persian expression with body parts 1: سر ‘head” quiz: