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Country names in -stan

Q From Audrey Lawson: I would like to know what the -stan at the end of Pakistan, Afghanistan etc., means and where it originated.

A It’s an ancient suffix, meaning “place” or “home”, which is known from a number of Indo-European languages, including Persian. It isn’t a native English compounding form — historically, we know it through the names for a number of central Asian countries such as the ones you mention, plus others like Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan and Turkmenistan.

It has been brought into English as the word stan, which is slowly beginning to appear in dictionaries (the Oxford English Dictionary added an entry for it only in 2004), though examples are known from the 1930s. It’s a collective term among diplomats and journalists for the countries north and west of Afghanistan that were once part of the old Soviet Union. An article in the Guardian newspaper on 26 October 2001, for example, quoted a diplomat’s approving opinion of a colleague that he “knows the Stans like the back of his hand”.

The only country name that was created in English is Bantustan, for one of the homelands set aside for occupation by Black Africans within the Republic of South Africa. That came about in the late 1940s as an unofficial, and usually disparaging, formation on the model of Pakistan, itself a constructed name that was based in part on Baluchistan. Bantustan is now also a disparaging term for any notionally independent country with discontinuous borders, whose internal affairs are controlled in practice by another country.

The political instability of many stans that has kept them in the news has led to the use since about 1960 of -stan (more recently still -istan) to form the names of fictional countries characterised either by their first elements or (since most real stans have Muslim majorities) ones that have strong Islamic associations. Hamastan was created in 2007 for the Gaza Strip area of Israel controlled by Hamas; Londonistan is a disparaging term for the British capital that refers to the numbers of militant Islamists living there. Such invented names are often used humorously, as in Blogistan, a supposed country that is populated by online bloggers; Nerdistan, concentrations of high-tech and science-based industries, such as Silicon Valley; and Robert Frank’s invention of Richistan, which became the title of his book in 2007, a state within a state in which only the seriously rich live.

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Page created 10 Oct 1998; Last updated 17 Jan 2009