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 blog post we will be discussing the word پشت posht ‘back’. This is a word which descended from the Proto-Indo-Iranian root *pṛštʰás, where it shares cognates with the Sanskrit word pṛṣṭha ‘back, rear’, and the Hindi/Urdu word pīṭh ‘back, seat, base, altar’.
The easiest way to illustrate the primary meaning of پشت posht is (unfortunately) through using pain as an example: پشت درد posht-dard means ‘back pain’, such as یک درمانِ ساده برای پشت درد yek darmān-e sāde barā-ye posht-dard ‘a simple cure for back pain’. However, ‘lower back pain’ is usually referred to as کَمَردرد kamar-dard (lit: ‘waist-pain’).
Another example of پشت posht having its anatomical meaning would be the Persian word for a ‘turtle’ or ‘tortoise’: لاک پشت lāk-posht (lit: ‘lacquer-back’), or less commonly سنگ پشت sang-posht (lit: ‘stone-back’).
There’s a nice proverb featuring پشت posht with its primary meaning of ‘back’:
کس نخارد پشتِ من
جُز ناخُنِ انگشتِ من
Kas nakhārad posht-e man
Joz nākhon-e angosht-e man
‘No one can scratch my back
Except my own fingernails’
This proverb means that you shouldn’t rely on someone else to scratch your back for you, a.k.a. the only person that can fix your problem is yourself.
This is actually a very common feature cross-linguistically, to metaphorically extend the meaning of our back to also mean things that are behind us or just ‘behind’ in general. We do exactly the same in English to conceptualise space, when we say something like ‘it’s back the way you came’.
Let’s not spend a long time going in to the details here, because this usage of پشت posht should be very easy to grasp for an English speaker. The key thing to remember here is that the linking ezāfe -e is necessary: پشتِ این ساختمان posht-e in sākhtemān ‘behind this building, at the back of this building’; پشتِ پرده posht-e parde ‘behind the curtain’; پشتِ فَرمان posht-e farmān ‘behind the steering wheel’; or پشتِ پُستخانه قرار دارد posht-e post-khāne qarār dārad ‘it is located behind the post office’.
So how would we say ‘behind my back’ in Persian? پشتِ پشتم posht-e poshtam? While technically this is grammatically correct, the phrasing sounds a bit silly. A native Persian speaker would use سر sar ‘head’ instead, for example پشتِ سرِ من حرف نزن posht-e sar-e man harf nazan ‘don’t talk behind my back’ (lit: ‘don’t talk behind my head’).
This is a less common use of پشت posht, synonymous in contemporary Persian with پشتیبانی poshtibāni ‘support’. In fact if we study the term پشتیبانی poshtibāni more closely, we can see it was formed from combining together the words پشت posht and بان- -bān ‘guard, keeper’. So it literally has the meaning of ‘guarding the back’, almost equivalent to the English term ‘backup’.
We can find an example of پشت posht meaning ‘support’ in Rumi’s Masnavi-ye Ma’navi:
هر که را آتش پناه و پشت شد
هم مَجوسی گشت و هم زَردُشت شد
– مولانا، مثنوی معنوی
Har ke rā ātash panāh-o posht shod
Ham majusi gasht-o ham zardosht shod
‘Any one who in fire finds refuge and support
Becomes both a Mage and a Zoroaster’
(Note: if you are a little confused by the placement of را rā in the above quotation, I would highly suggest taking a gander at our earlier blog post regarding the placement of را rā in Classical Persian poetry: link here.)
This usage is limited to a handful of examples. The two most useful are پشتِ بام posht-e bām ‘rooftop’ and پشتِ زین posht-e zin ‘upon the saddle, [riding] on the saddle’. While the word بام bām by itself does mean ‘roof’, it is very common in contemporary Persian to pair it with پشت posht to mean ‘rooftop’. Originally پشتِ بام posht-e bām meant something like ‘above the roof’, but in contemporary usage it can be viewed as a stand-alone compound noun.
There are times when پشت posht can mean ‘generation’. This is a very marked use of پشت posht, but it’s one we can find in Ferdowsi’s epic the Shāhnāme, within the story of Rostam and Esfandiyār:
ز پانصد همانا فزونست سال
که تا من جدا گشتم از پشت زال
Ze pānsad hamānā fazunast sāl
Ke tā man jodā gashtam az posht-e zāl
‘For even five hundred years more
Until I become separated from Zāl’s generation’
(Note: Zāl was the son of Sām and father of Rostam, known as one of the great warrior-kings from Ferdowsi’s Shāhnāme. He was born with a completely white head of hair, and raised in the Alborz Mountains by the mythical phoenix-like bird the Simorgh.)
To end this blog, there are a few random uses of پشت posht which I didn’t want to leave out. The first is پشت گلی posht-goli (lit: ‘flower-back’). پشت گلی posht-goli is used to describe a very specific colour: the faded pinky-red colour found on the underside of a rose petal.
The verb پشت دادن posht dādan (lit: ‘to give one’s back’) can be used to mean ‘to lean on’ or ‘to rely on’, a synonym of the verb تِکیه دادن tekye dādan. This verb can be seen as an extension of the earlier meaning of ‘support’. We also have the word پشتک poshtak ‘somersault’ and the related verb پشتک زدن poshtak zadan ‘to do a somersault’. The phrase پشتِ گوش انداختن posht-e gush andākhtan (lit: ‘to throw behind the ear’) can be used colloquially to mean ‘to neglect one’s work, to work in a lazy manner, to procrastinate’.
There’s also a nice taarof-y proverb using پشت posht: گل پشت و رو نداره gol posht-o ru nadāre (lit: ‘a flower doesn’t have a back or face’). If you sit with your back to someone, this can often be considered rude, right? You can use this phrase in response to someone apologising for sitting with their back to you – you would tell them that ‘a flower doesn’t have a back or face’. The intended meaning here is that you are not at all offended by the position in which they are sitting, because, like a flower, they are beautiful from all sides.
Finally, we have the proverb پشتِ چشم نازُک کردن posht-e cheshm nāzok kardan (lit: ‘to thin behind the eyes’). Any guesses for what this could mean? ‘Thinning behind the eyes’ is used to allude to an arrogant person, or someone who has a superiority complex, such as someone who dresses, acts, or speaks in an arrogant or superior manner around others. For example, این دُختر چقدر برای ما پشتِ چشم نازُک می کند شاید می داند چقدر زیباست in dokhtar cheqadr barā-ye mā posht-e cheshm nāzok mikonad shāyad midānad cheqadr zibā-st ‘this girl acts so arrogant around us, perhaps she knows her own beauty’.
Until next time!