Acronyms and demonyms: Name that country!

The Monitor's language columnist makes a surprising discovery about Pakistan.

The most surprising thing I have learned today is that "Pakistan" is completely made up – Pakistan the name, I mean.

I ran across this nugget in "Johnson," The Economist's language blog. The topic was why the people of Afghanistan are Afghans, not "Afghanistanis," never mind that Johnson turned up 24,400 hits when he Googled this unfortunate neologism. Even US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has used it in a briefing at least once, although that might have been just a slip.

But here's the thing: "Stan" is a combining form meaning "country" or "home of," as in Kurdistan, home of the Kurds (not an actual country but that's another story). It really means "where they stand," I learned from the Online Etymology Dictionary, and so is a distant word-cousin of our English "stand." (Surprise No. 2 for the day.) Afghanistan is the home of the Afghans. They were a people before they were a country.

But with Pakistan, the country, or at least an idea for a country, came first; "Pakistanis," as the demonym (name for the inhabitants), came later.

The coinage of "Pakistan" is ascribed to the Muslim nationalist Choudhary Rahmat Ali, a student at Cambridge University in England, who used it in a pamphlet published in 1933. The name was an acronym, made up of initial letters of Punjab, Afghania (the North West Frontier or "Afghan" Province), Kashmir, and Sindh, with the "tan" from the tail end of Baluchistan.

These regions were envisioned as forming the new state that would be created when British India was partitioned in 1947. An "i" in the middle was added, making pronunciation easier and alluding to the Indus River, which gave its name to India but flows through Pakistan. It helped that pak was a Persian word meaning "pure" – the "land of the pure" had a nice ring to it.

Place names are endlessly fascinating, and in the world of international news, they are continually changing – or more to the point, being changed.

And yet it's striking how organic and deep-rooted most place names are. The political status of a place, and hence its official name, may change, as when Ukraine emerged from the Soviet Union as an independent country. But we knew what to call it.

The British had created "India," and as it became clear that partition was in prospect, somebody needed to come up with a name for what would become "Pakistan." The name was an artificial construct, but it had roots, at least, in "real" place names like Punjab.

The United States of America were a collection of separate places with separate "real" names – not acronyms! – until they were fused in the crucible of the Revolution (and the United States were plural like that, until the Civil War).

It was a surprise to discover that a country in such a long-settled part of the world would have a made-up name. But redrawing the map and rewriting its labels are essential processes of history. Pakistan came into being during a post-World War II period of cartographic rearrangement that also brought about two Germanys, Israel, and an independent Philippines, among other changes.

We don't yet know how the Arab Spring will last through the fall and into winter, much less what changes it will bring to our atlases. But I'll venture that the "real names" are mostly already on the map.

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