Kurdish fighters, known as peshmerga, have reportedly surrounded the northern Iraqi city of Kirkuk, a vital oil center. A story in Friday’s New York Times defines peshmerga as “those who face death.” The Washington Post, however, goes with the grimmer “those who seek death.” Which paper speaks more fluent Kurdish?
Chalk one up for the Gray Lady, more or less. Pesh means to stand in front of; merga literally means “death.” The most accurate translation of the word, then, is “those who have death in front of them,” though the Times version is close in both spirit and meaning.
Students of Middle Eastern linguistics will note that peshmerga’s constituent words are of Persian origin. This is no coincidence, as the word was added to the Kurdish lexicon during the brief heyday of the Mahabad Republic. The only fully independent Kurdish homeland in modern history, the republic was established in northwestern Iran in January 1946, with the tacit approval of the Soviet Union. According to Kurdish lore, the young nation’s leaders met to codify the group’s language, as a precursor to setting up educational institutions. The story goes that the amateur linguists couldn’t come up with a suitable word for “soldier” and adjourned to a local cafe. When a waiter inquired as to why the table looked so glum, they described their vocabulary woes. The waiter then suggested peshmerga, a slang term from his nearby village.
The veracity of this tale is hard to check, as there is relatively little historical information available regarding the Mahabad Republic. The nation lasted only 11 months, until it was overrun by Iranian troops. The Soviets, thought to be friends of the Kurdish regime, offered no military assistance.
Since then, peshmerga has come to mean “freedom fighter” and is often used as an honorific for Kurdish guerrilla fighters. In addition, the uniforms these soldiers wear are also referred to as peshmerga.
Explainer thanks Dr. Michael L. Chyet of the Library of Congress.