Word of the month with Iskandar Ding: ناز/nāz

Posted  22 Apr 2020

We’re delighted to introduce our first in a series of blogs from Iskandar Ding, a multi-linguist who, among many other things, is a post-graduate student in Iranian Studies at SOAS, University of London. Iskandar will be considering aspects of Persian language and culture across its vast area of influence, both present and historical. Some posts, like today’s, will be more academic, others more general. In his first post, republished from his own blog, واژه‌باز / vājabāz, Iskandar considers the slippery and seemingly untranslatable idea of ناز/nāz. Many learners who who first come across the word are told that it means someting along the lines of ‘cute’ in English, but any who have ventured further into Persian poetry will have had a taste that the story is much more complicated; and trying to navigate it takes us on quite an interesting journey, as you will see. When Iskandar is not delving deep into the quirks of Persian vocab, he is also a mean player of the rubāb/رباب, a Central Asian stringed instrument.

For a long time, I have been wondering how to define ‘Persianate’ cultural traits. If there is a distinct culture that has come to be known conveniently in academia as ‘Persianate’, how do we describe it? How do we define the Homo Persicus? As any effort of definition inevitably results in generalisation, the best way to explain ‘Persianate’ culture is through concrete cultural examples, such as the celebration of Nawrōz, self-deprecation as expression of (fake or genuine) politeness, love for banqueting and feasting followed by music, and so on and so forth. None of these, however, are as human and endearing as the word ناز/nāz, a social code that covers a range of behaviours in inter-personal relations.

‘Coquetry’, a word of French origin and the most common translation of ناز/nāz in English, is inexact in that it infuses the love game it represents with too much proactive flirtatiousness, whereas ناز/nāz does not have to be a proactive thing, nor does it have to be confined in love games; ‘affectation/affected airs’, an alternative translation, assumes too much deliberateness, interpreting the behaviour as an ‘act’ and therefore missing the point of ناز/nāz entirely, not to mention carrying a negative undertone as well. ‘Lackadaisical’ is a lovely translation, but too clumsy for the register of daily speech, and ناز/nāz is a word used in all registers.

ناز/nāz is a trait, a state of being, a compromised modesty that titillates, warms, frustrates and therefore entices the heart. Certainly, much of this also exists in other cultures, but it is only in Persianate culture that it is expressed with a direct and succinct three-letter word, consonant-vowel-consonant – the perfect syllable, without beating around the bush. Giving an abstract concept a linguistic sign is important to humans, animals of language: it gives the concept more of a reality, more of Dasein instead of being simply content with the Sein.

The origin of ناز/nāz is mysterious, as no Indo-European etymology has been found (Cheung 2007). The earliest form we can trace it back to was also *nāz, which was present in the lexica of all Middle Iranian dialects across the Iranian cultural sphere comprising today’s Iran, Afghanistan, and Central Asia, under different attested forms, independent or as a part of a compound, and with more or less the same combination of meanings. Among the meanings that Cheung (2007) gives for the verbal root *nāz-, we see, from an Anglophone point of view, faintly connected ones such as ‘to take pleasure in’, ‘to be proud’, ‘to be delicate’, ‘to triumph’, and the verbal noun nāzišn in Middle Persian is explained as both ‘boasting’ and ‘kindness’. This is exactly what ناز/nāz is – complex, ineffable, yet mundanely tangible.

The New Persian ناز/nāz is present in all Persianate languages, an ancient Iranian lexical and cultural heritage from Azerbaijan to Khotan, from Otrar to Delhi. However, the frequency of its daily, common use differs from language to language. The highest frequency, in my experience, is among speakers of Iranian languages and Persianate Turkic languages, who readily use the word to describe the behaviour it designates, and it is in these languages that verb collocations/derived verbs exist in common use, for example, ناز کردن/nāz kardan ‘to do nāz‘ (more of a temporally and spatially specific act) or ناز داشتن/nāz dāštan ‘to have nāz‘ (more of a general behavioural trait) in Persian, ناز کردن/naz kirdin ‘to do nāz’ in Sorani Kurdish, naz et- ‘to do nāz’ in Azerbaijani, noz qil- ‘to do nāz’ in Uzbek, and نازلان-/nazlan- ‘to act with nāz’ in Uyghur. Other Persianate languages may have the word ناز/nāz, but it belongs to an older or more literary parlance and contemporary speakers may not be universally aware of it or use it in everyday life, preferring to paraphrase it, as it is in the case of modern standard Turkish and Urdu. In these languages, however, even though ناز/nāz may not be used frequently as an independent word, its derivations have more currency than itself, such as nazlı ‘having/with nāz‘ in modern standard Turkish, and نازک/nāzuk ‘delicate’ in almost all Persianate languages.

Languages that have long been in contact with Persianate culture, especially Greek, Armenian, and Georgian, have picked up bits and pieces of ناز/nāz themselves. The Greeks have νάζι/nazi (collocates usually in the plural, νάζια/názia, with verb κάνω/káno ‘to do’) as a colloquial term to describe the exact same phenomenon, although having a much more negative implication, as it emphasises on the ‘affectation’ aspect of ناز/nāz and even describes the mischiefs of spoiled children acting up when things goes against their will. The Armenian understanding of ناز/nāz is closer to its meaning and implications in Persian, whereas in Georgian, under the form of ნაზი/nazi, the meaning of ‘delicate, soft, tender’ takes precedence.

ناز/nāz may or may not be understood as a behaviour in love games: the teasing tactic of the Turkish Maraş ice-cream sellers is, at least for me, an expression of ناز/nāz. In love games, where ناز/nāz is omnipresent in Persianate culture, it is a highly prized trait, especially in women, despite the frustrations and heart-breaks it causes to their suitors, and such frustrations and heart-breaks have generated a myriad of poetic tropes in classical literature as well as modern pop songs. There is a Tajik pop song called ‘نازی نازی/Nāzī Nāzī‘ which I quite enjoy, which opens with the refrain:

خدا دهد نازته، ای نازی نازی
دل مره برده‌ای بازی به بازی

H̱udā dihad nāzata, ey Nāzī, Nāzī
Dil-i mara burdaʾī, bāzī ba bāzī

‘God gives you your nāz, oh you Nāz-ful One,
You have taken away my heart like a plaything’


The subject clearly enjoys the tease and the chase that constitute ناز/nāz, despite the claimed frustration. Isn’t feigned vexation from the ‘victim’ of ناز/nāz in itself ناز/nāz, too? An act of ناز/nāz calls for another, and love blossoms in the exchange of ناز/nāz.

Even the word itself has ناز/nāz, if you think about it. ناز/nāz, despite being a perfect syllable, with an onset, nucleus, and a coda, in western linguistics, is an extra-long syllable in Persian poetic metre (عروض/ʿarūḍ) that appears less frequently than the far more ‘normal’ short and long syllables. An extra-long syllable counts as one and a half beats, giving you half of the extra but takes away the pleasure of the other half that will make your enjoyment of it full, so that to fulfil your craving for the two, you will have to resort to a short syllable from another word – no more from the begrudging, delicate, beautiful ناز/nāz.

Iskandar Ding

[Image source: https://collections.mfa.org/objects/13883/a-young-man-offering-a-cup-of-wine-to-a-girl]