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’.
The eye is another body part in Persian which has multiple uses: you could say there’s more than just what meets the eye! چشم cheshm, or chashm in Classical Persian, comes from the Proto-Iranian word chashma, which also meant ‘eye’. Interestingly, the word in Persian for a ‘spring’ or a ‘freshwater source’ is چشمه cheshme, which has the same etymological origin. It is though that the etymology of the words ‘eye’ and ‘water source’ are historically intertwined, and evidence for this comes from the fact that other languages spoken nearby also contain this shared etymology, such as عین ‘ayn in Arabic also having the double meaning of ‘eye’ or ‘freshwater spring’.
The word چشم cheshm can be pluralised in two ways: with the regular plural suffix ها- -hā, or with the animate plural suffix ـان -ān. This highlights a peculiarity of Persian grammar whereby some paired body parts such as the eyes can be treated like animate nouns. However, چشمان cheshmān ‘eyes’ is a word to be found in poetry, but rarely used in conversational speech or everyday writing. Unless you wish to sound overly poetic, I’d stick with saying چشم ها cheshm(h)ā when speaking Persian.
Let’s start with the eye in its anatomical sense. We all already know what an eye is, so I’m going to dive straight in and give you some examples: چشم پزشک cheshm-pezeshk ‘optometrist, optician’; تیزچشم tiz-cheshm ‘sharp-eyed, eagle eyed’; عضلات چشم azolāt-e cheshm ‘eye muscles’; خطای چشم khatā-ye cheshm ‘optical illusion’; کُرۀ چشم kore-ye cheshm ‘eyeball’; خستگی چشم khastegi-ye cheshm ‘eyestrain’; and یک چشم بند yek cheshm-band ‘a blindfold’ (lit: ‘an eye-band’). Another useful word is the adjectival form: چشمی cheshmi ‘optical, ocular’, such as قطره های چشمی qatrehā-ye cheshmi ‘eye drops’.
A ‘wink’ is literally just a ‘little eye’, which sounds rather cute: چشمک cheshmak. The verb for ‘to wink’ is چشمک زدن cheshmak zadan, for example چرا داری بهم چشمک می زنی؟ cherā dāri behem cheshmak mizani ‘why are you winking at me?’.
To ‘stare’ at someone, you would use the verb چشم دوختن به کسی cheshm dukhtan be kasi, with the present stem being چشم می دوزـ cheshm miduz-. The nominal form is چشم دوزی cheshm-duzi ‘a stare’.
The eye has a special superstitious meaning, known as the ‘evil eye’ in English, or as the چشمِ بد cheshm-e bad, چشم زخم cheshm-zakhm, or the چشمِ حَسود cheshm-e hasud in Persian. In Afghan Persian it is also known as the چشمِ مُهره chashm-e mohra. The concept of the evil eye dates back thousands of years, and is based on the idea that a malevolent or envious glare towards an unsuspecting person can bring that person bad luck or a curse. The evil eye is a supernatural belief that exists in various forms across many different cultures and religions, from the Mediterranean and the Balkans, across Turkey, to Iran and Central Asia. To protect one’s self from the evil eye a talisman or amulet is often worn, called a نظر nazar. The earliest known example of an amulet to protect from the evil eye comes from the archeaological site Tell Brak in Mesopotamia (modern day Syria), dated to around 3,300 BC! In Persian these kinds of protective amulets are often referred to as نظر قُربانی nazar-qorbāni or چشم نظر cheshm-nazar.
To wish the evil eye away one can say چشمِ بد دور cheshm-e bad dur ‘far [be] the evil eye!’. We can find a nice example from a poem by the Sufi poet Abusa’id Abolkhayr:
گفتم به دعا که چشم بد دور ز تو
ای دوست مگر چشم بدت من بودم
– ابوسعید ابوالخیر
Goftam be do’ā ke cheshm-e bad dur ze to
Ey dust magar cheshm-e badat man budam
‘I said to pray that the evil stays far away from you
Oh my friend but what if I was your evil eye?’
The worst possible thing you could do to a superstitious person is ‘to give the evil eye’ or ‘cast the evil eye towards someone’. This is expressed with the verb چشم زدن cheshm zadan (lit: ‘to hit the eye’). Don’t get this verb confused with چشمک زدن cheshmak zadan ‘to wink’!
Another thing you don’t want to do, is to be تنگ چشم tang-cheshm (lit: ‘tight-eyed’), which means that you are ‘stingy’ or ‘miserly’. I like the somewhat literal mental image of this one.
You will hear the Persians saying چشم chashm/cheshm a lot as an interjection. When used in this way, it is a rather polite way of saying ‘okay’. You could translate this into English in a variety of ways: ‘with pleasure’, ‘okay’, ‘very well’, or ‘alright’. It shows a certain level of respect and taarof, so it would be common to hear a student say چشم chashm to their teacher, for example. Building upon this, an even more polite phrase would be به روی چشم be ru-ye cheshm. The closest translation in English for به روی چشم be ru-ye cheshm would be something like ‘consider it done’. It is also common for a Persian person to gesture ‘okay’ by covering one of their eyes (like a pirate!). This could be done as well as, or instead of, saying چشم chashm/cheshm.
If someone says چشم chashm to you, a common taarof response is to say چشمتون بی بلا cheshmetun bi-balā (lit ‘[may] your eye [be] without misfortune’). It’s best not to over-analyse the actual meaning here, and just to learn it as a set taarof phrase in response to چشم chashm.
It sounds very odd when translated into English, but another taarof-y phrase using چشم cheshm is ‘your step on my eye’. You can say this in a variety of ways: قدمت روی چشم qadamet ru-ye cheshm; قدمتون روی چشم qadametun ru-ye cheshm; or قدمتون روی چشمام qadametun ru-ye cheshmām. These are all slight variations of the same phrase with no real change in the meaning.
You would say ‘your step on my eye’ as a greeting to welcome someone. It shows your excitement at seeing a friend or family member; basically, meaning that this person is so precious to you and you are so happy to see them that you would allow them to put their foot on your eyes. Like a lot of Persian polite taarof phrases, it doesn’t really make a lot of sense in English, but you can understand the sentiment.
Another useful phrase is چشم انتظار cheshm entezār (lit: ‘eye anticipation’). You would use this phrase when you are excited to see someone, but before they have arrived. It’s what you would say to show you are eagerly anticipating someone’s arrival, for example چشم انتظاریم cheshm entezārim ‘we are looking forward to seeing you’. The related word چشم داشت cheshm-dāsht ‘expectation’ has a similar meaning, but with a more negative connotation: it doesn’t show the same excitement as چشم انتظار cheshm entezār.
Yet another taarof expression using چشم cheshm is چشماتون قشنگ می بینه cheshmātun qashang mibine ‘your eyes see beautifully’. This is a clever but polite way of deflecting a compliment, because instead of accepting a compliment from someone outright, you can turn it back on them and say that actually they just have a beautiful way of seeing things.
You can also call someone your نورِ چشم nur-e cheshm (lit: ‘light of the eye’) as a term of endearment, for example to show fondness towards a child or a dear friend. The phrase چشم و چراغ cheshm-o cherāgh (lit: ‘eye and light’) means ‘goodness’ or ‘brightness’, but it can also be used to allude to one’s beloved.
A nice word for ‘perspective’ or ‘outlook’ is چشم انداز cheshm-andāz (lit: ‘eye-size’). There is also the related word چشم اندازدار cheshm-andāz-dār ‘panoramic’ (lit: ‘having-eye-size’).
To say that someone has ‘pure/good intentions’ or is ‘trustworthy’, in Persian you can say چشم و دل پاک cheshm-o del-e pāk (lit: ‘pure eyes and heart’). For example, تو چشم و دل پاکی to cheshm-o del-e pāk-i ‘you have pure intentions’.
In order to ‘turn a blind eye towards something’ in Persian, you have to say ‘to shut down your eyes from something’: چشم از چیزی فروبستن cheshm az chizi forubastan, with the present tense stem being فرو می بندـ foru miband-.
At the beginning of this blog post we learned the word چشم بند cheshm-band, meaning ‘blindfold’. However there is a similar word, چشم بندی cheshm-bandi, which means ‘trickery’ or ‘sleight of hand’.
There’s a great phrase which features چشم cheshm twice: چشم و همچشمی کردن cheshm-o hamcheshmi kardan ‘to keep up appearances’ or ‘to compare yourself to those around you’. This phrase always makes me think of the Dursley family from Harry Potter, who were always so terribly concerned with what the neighbours would think. It’s the Persian equivalent of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’.
Finally, there’s a beautiful line of poetry attributed to Attār which mentions the eye:
چشم بگشا که جلوه دلدار
به تجلی ست از در و دیوار
Cheshm bogoshā ke jelve-ye deldār
Be tajalli-st az dar-o divār
‘Open your eyes and you’ll start to see
Your beloved appearing behind every door’
And here’s a little tongue twister by Mahsati Ganjavi to leave you with (see if you can read the Persian):
چشمم چو به چشم خویش چشم تو بدید
بی چشم تو خواب چشم از چشم رمید
ای چشم همه چشم به چشمت روشن
چون چشم تو چشم من دگر هیچ ندید