Explainer Mailbag: Pak Journalism

Thanks to Chatterbox, we know that the proper term is “Afghan” not “Afghani.” But why are people from Pakistan referred to as “Pakistanis” and not “Paks”?

Explainer readers already know that -istan means “land” and that “Afghanistan” means “land of the Afghans,” “Uzbekistan” means “land of the Uzbeks,” and “Pakistan” means “land of the pure.” Obviously, one of these three isn’t doing the same thing, to mangle a line from Sesame Street.

How is “Pakistan” different etymologically? The word is an invented acronym, coined in 1933 by a group of Cambridge students who issued a pamphlet entitled Now or Never. The pamphlet stated that “Pakistan” was “composed of letters taken from the names of our homelands: that is, Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir, Iran, Sindh, Tukharistan, Afghanistan, and Baluchistan.” To say that Pakistan is the “land of the Paks” is to say that it is the land of the “spiritually pure and clean,” according to the pamphlet. But perhaps because “Paks” are not a people in the same sense as Afghans or Uzbeks, the citizens of Pakistan have come to be known as “Pakistanis.”

In other business, this week’s item on the Global Positioning System prompted fears from a few readers that shutting down the civilian GPS in Afghanistan would hinder U.S. military efforts there. Not to worry. The military has its own GPS signal that is harder to acquire and more difficult to jam. The military signal is also more difficult to “spoof” (meaning to fool a GPS receiver by sending deceptive signals to it). But in theory the military and civilian signals are equally accurate.

Finally, a reader wants to know the origin of the rumor that President George W. Bush thought the Taliban was a rock band during the 2000 presidential campaign. Maureen Dowd mentioned it in two separate columns, one in May 2000 and one in January 2001 (though she hasn’t brought it up recently).

Explainer thinks this one is a little unfair. The story comes from an interview Bush gave to Glamour magazine for its June 2000 issue. The writer was a playing a word association game with Bush, tossing out things like Sex and the City and Madonna. When the writer threw out “Taliban,” Bush sat silent. The writer prodded Bush, saying “because of the repression of women in Afghanistan?” Bush’s response: “Oh, I thought you said some band. The Taliban in Afghanistan! Absolutely. Repressive.”

Next question?

Explainer thanks this Library of Congress Web site.