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’.
It’s time for the final installment of this blog series, and we’ll be talking all about the hands and feet: let’s start with the feet! The word پا pā in Persian has to do double the work, because it can mean both ‘leg’ and ‘foot’ depending on the context: basically it can be used to refer to anything from the thigh-area downwards.
The word پا pā ultimately comes from the Proto-Indo-European root *pṓds, which also meant ‘foot’. This root word *pṓds is one of the only original Proto-Indo-European words that can be attested in nearly all of the modern Indo-European languages with little change to its original meaning. Thus we have pied in French, foot in English, pódi in Greek, pa in Bengali, pā́da in Sanskrit, pal in Pashto (and so on…), which all descended from *pṓds. In Middle Persian, the word for ‘foot’ was پای pāy, and it can still be heard pronounced in this way in some dialects of Afghan and Tajik Persian.
A good example of the primary usage of پا pā would be something like: از پله ها افتادم، پایم شکست az pellehā oftādam, pāyam shekast ‘I fell down the stairs and broke my leg’. It’s important to note that in the colloquial language, in place of پایم pāyam ‘my leg’ or پاهایتان pāhāyatān ‘your legs’, one can simply say پام pā-m or پاهاتون pāhātun.
There are many words and phrases where پا pā has its anatomical meaning: انگشتِ پا angosht-e pā ‘toe’ (lit: ‘finger of the foot’); مُچِ پا moch-e pā ‘ankle’ (lit: ‘foot joint’); دمپایی dam-pāyi ‘slippers’ (lit: ‘foot-resters’); هست پا hasht-pā ‘octopus’ (lit: ‘eight-leg’); هزارپا hezār-pā ‘millipede’ (literally, you guessed it: ‘thousand-leg’); دوپا do-pā ‘bipedal’; چهارپا chahār-pā ‘four-legged’; and also the verb پا شدن pā shodan ‘to get up’, such as سام سریع پا شد و رفت Sām sari’ pā shod-o raft ‘Sam got up quickly and left’. Another useful word, ultimately coming from the same Proto-Indo-European root, is پاشنه pāshne meaning ‘heel’. We also have the word پایدار pāydār ‘stable, permanent’ (lit: ‘having feet’), and the verb پافشاری کردن pā-feshāri kardan ‘to insist’ (lit: ‘doing foot-pressure’; compare to the English expression ‘I have to put my foot down’).
Finally, we have the پاگُشا pā-goshā ceremony (lit: ‘open leg’), but probably best to just call it ‘Pāgoshā’ in English! The پاگُشا pā-goshā is a post-wedding gathering common in Iran, where various relatives of the bride and groom will invite the newlyweds over to their houses to honour their new status as a married couple.
For example, پای دیوار pā-ye divār ‘the bottom of the wall’, پاورقی pā-varaqi ‘footnote’, پای کوه pā-ye kuh ‘foot of the mountain’, پای منبر pā-ye menbar ‘foot of the pulpit’, or پای ورقه pā-ye varaqe ‘the bottom of the page’. This semantic extension is identical to how in English we can say things like ‘foothills’ or ‘footnote’.
A good example of a word having this meaning is پایتخت pāytakht ‘capital city’, because this word originated from پای تخت شاه pā-ye takht-e shāh ‘at the foot of the king’s throne’ or ‘around the throne’, which shows us how back in Ancient Iran the placement of the king’s throne was practically synonymous with the capital city.
We also have a short example from Hāfez:
مده جام می و پای گل از دست
ولی غافل مباش از دهر سرمست
Made jām-e mey-o pā-ye gol az dast
Vali ghāfel mabāsh az dahr-e sar-mast
‘Don’t lose the opportunity to drink wine while sitting by the flowers
But also don’t forget the dangers of this drunken world’
Hāfez’s use of the phrase پای گل pā-ye gol (lit: ‘foot of the roses’) is another example where پا pā is best translated as ‘around’ or ‘beside’, as the intended meaning here is ‘[sitting] around/beside the flowers’.
The word پایه pāye ‘base, foundation’ is actually formed from the word پا pā, so it should be no surprise that پا pā also has this meaning. We should also mention the word پایگاه pāy(e)gāh ‘base’, which essentially has the same meaning but is only used for a physical location, such as پایگاهِ ارتش pāy(e)gāh-e artesh ‘army base’.
We have an example from Sa’di where پا pā could be translated in a variety of ways, including as ‘beside’, ‘underneath’, or ‘the bottom’:
در اوراق سعدی چنین پند نیست
که چون پای دیوار کندی مایست
Dar owrāq-e sa’di chonin pand nist
Ke chun pā-ye divār kandi ma-ist
‘In the writings of Sa’di there’s no such recommendation
That one should not stand beside one’s own transgression’
Here the phrase پای دیوار pā-ye divār means ‘underneath the wall’ or ‘the bottom/foundation of the wall’. The point that Sa’di is trying to make here is that if you damage the wall (i.e. making a mistake, an oversight, or a blunder), you should stand by it, and not run away from taking responsibility for the problem which you created.
One can also use پا pā as a unit of measurement, exactly the same as ‘6 foot’ in English. An example would be, هواپیما در فاصلۀ دوهزار پایی پرواز می کرد havāpeymā dar fāsele-ye do-hezār pā-yi parvāz mikard ‘The airplane was flying at an altitude of 2000 feet’. However, unless you are an airplane pilot it is very unlikely that you will come across this use of پا pā in Persian.
Occasionally پا pā can be used to mean ‘a partner’ or ‘participant’ in a game, such as پای بازیِ ما هستی؟ pā-ye bāzi-ye mā hasti? ‘Will you participate in the game with us?’.
Finally, we have the verb پا دراز کردن pā darāz kardan ‘to expect too much without deserving it’ (lit: ‘to stretch one’s legs’). An example of this rather metaphorical meaning comes from Sa’di:
مکن تُرکتازی بکن تَرکِ آز
به قدر گلیمت بکن پا دراز
Makon tork-tāzi bokon tark-e āz
Be qadr-e gelimat bokon pā darāz
‘Don’t be so greedy in trying to inherit
Only ask for that which you deserve and merit’ (lit: ‘don’t stretch out your feet further than your own kilim [prayer mat]’)
Now let’s move on to دست dast ‘hand’ – another word in Persian which has to work twice as hard, as it means both ‘hand’ and ‘arm’. In this blog post we will primarily translate دست dast as ‘hand’, but please remember that it can be used to refer to anything from the shoulders to the fingertips.
If you already read our previous blog post about چشم cheshm ‘eye’, you’ll remember that some paired body parts can be pluralised using the animate plural suffix ـان -ān, and دست dast is another paired body part which allows this. You may stumble across دستان dastān ‘hands’ in Classical Poetry, but be warned that it sounds very dated in Modern Persian speech. However, it should be noted that you cannot pluralise پا pā in this way, because پایان pāyān is a separate word in its own right, meaning ‘end’, so using the ـان -ān suffix here would cause bothersome confusion. There is one exception however, with the word چهارپایان chahār-pāyān ‘four-legged [farm] animals’.
The word دست dast can be used to refer to human hands, such as in the word دستکش dast-kesh ‘gloves’ (lit: ‘pulled over the hand’), and also to the front two legs of a four-legged animal, such as سر و دستِ گوسفند sar-o dast-e gusfand ‘the sheep’s head and front legs’. Some other useful words are دست فروش dast-forush ‘street seller, pedlar’ (lit: ‘selling by hand’); دست ساز dast-sāz ‘handmade’, such as یک تخته نردِ دست ساز خریدم yek takhte-nard-e dast-sāz kharidam ‘I bought a handmade backgammon board’; and also کارِ دست kār-e dast which has the same meaning of ‘handmade’.
An example of this meaning would be a phrase like یک دست شطرنج بازی کردن yek dast shatranj bāzi kardan ‘to play a game of chess’. We can also find an example from Rumi:
باخت دستِ دیگر و شه مات شد
Bākht dast-e digar-o shah-māt shod.
‘Another game lost and another checkmate’.
(Note: in order to preserve the ضرورتِ شعری zarurat-e she’ri ‘the rhythm of the poem’, Rumi has shortened the word شاه مات shāh-māt ‘checkmate’ to شه مات shah-māt. An interesting etylmological fact to mention here is that the English word ‘checkmate’ is believed to ultimately derive from the Persian word شاه مات shāh-māt, which literally means something like ‘the king is left [with no escape]’.)
An example of this meaning would be in the sentence: هنوز به این دستِ کوچه نرسیده بود که معلمش را دید hanuz be in dast-e kuche nareside bud ke mo’allemesh rā did ‘He saw his teacher before he’d reached the other side of the street’. It is also common in spoken Persian to say دستِ چپ dast-e chap ‘on the left, the left side’ and دستِ راست dast-e rāst ‘on the right, the right side’.
This is a less common usage of دست dast, but one which you may encounter in a limited set of expressions. When you wish to specify that you are talking about ‘one full set of something’, you can use دست dast as a counting unit. Here, دست dast is being used as a count word, so ezāfe is not required. See the follow two examples: یک دست کت و شلوار yek dast kot-o shalvār ‘one suit’ (as in a full suit set or a tuxedo set); and من امروز رفتم و یک دست قاشق و چنگال خریدم man emruz raftam-o yek dast qāshoq-o changāl kharidam ‘Today I went and bought one cutlery set’.
This is a more specialised usage, one which we can find being used by Sa’di:
مَلِک با دلِ خویش با گفت و گو
که دستِ وزارت سپارد بدو
Malek bā del-e khish bā goft-o gu
Ke dast-e vezārat sepārad bedu
‘The king was thinking to himself
To give away the power of the ministry [to him]’
In the above quote, دست dast could be translated as either ‘governance’ or ‘power’.
There are several super useful verbs which use دست dast. The most important pair to remember is از دست دادن az dast dādan ‘to lose’ (in the sense of losing an object), such as تلفنمو از دست دادم telefonam-o az dast dādam ‘I lost my phone!’; and از دست رفتن az dast raftan ‘to be lost’ (simply the passive form of از دست دادن az dast dādan). It’s important to remember that the above two verbs only mean ‘to lose/be lost’ in the sense of misplacing something. The verb باختن bākhtan should be used for the sense of ‘to lose a game/match’ and the verb گم شدن gom shodan for the sense of ‘someone is lost, to get lost somewhere’. The other verb which uses دست dast is به دست آوردن be dast āvardan ‘to achieve, to gain, to obtain’.
In the final section of this blog we are going to talk about some phrases which use دست dast and پا pā together. First up is دست و پا زدن dast-o pā zadan, which means ‘to struggle’ or ‘to slog’. An example sentence would be بابا، اینقدر دست و پا نزن، بالاخره قبول می شی bābā, inqadr dast-o pā nazan, belākhare qabul mishi ‘Hey, don’t struggle so much, you’re going to be accepted [into college]!’.
If you are ‘without hands and feet’ بی دست و پا bi-dast-o pā that means that you are ‘clumsy’, or you could also say دست و پا چُلُفتی dast-o pā cholofti ‘clumsy, inept, bumbling, uncoordinated’.
We’ve also got the phrase دست و پا گیر dast-o pā-gir ‘cumbersome’, such as in the sentence این کار خیلی دست و پا گیره in kār kheyli dast-o-pā-gire ‘this work is so cumbersome!’. And the phrase دست و پا بسته dast-o pā baste (lit: ‘hands and feet tied’) means ‘powerless’, ‘incapable’ or ‘lacking authority’. You can also just say دست بسته dast-baste (lit: ‘hands tied’) which has exactly the same meaning of ‘incapable’ or ‘powerless’, such as in the following line of poetry by Emadi Shahriyari:
بی رایِ تو عَقل بسته دستی ست
Bi-ra’i-ye to aql baste-dasti-st
‘Without your council my mind is incapable’
– Emadi Shahriyari
Finally, we have the verb دست و پا کردن dast-o pā kardan ‘to sort out, to prepare, to arrange’. Such as, برات یه کاری دست و پا می کنم barāt ye kāri dast-o pā mikonam ‘I’ll sort out some work for you’.
We’ve reached the end of our ‘Persian expressions with body parts’ blog series! We hope you found it useful and learned some new words and expressions!