Word-istan: A Powerful Suffix Making Stops in Bailout-istan and Trash-can-istan

Though language is my beat, I couldn't help making some geographical observations: "Vietnam-istan" is one name and opinion of...

Though language is my beat, I couldn't help making some geographical observations:

"Vietnam-istan" is one name and opinion of Afghanistan.

Other writers call the troubled country "Half gone'istan," "Warlord-istan," "I-give-up-istan," and "Mastercard-istan."

A TV recapper quips about women from Average-Looking-Brunette-istan, while a dating advisor discusses the popular destination of Divorce-istan.

I just hope no one reading this article is forced to flee to I'mboredsowhere'sthepornistan.

It's not a new trend, but the use of "-istan" or just "-stan" is an interesting case where neverending political chaos (especially in Afghanistan and Pakistan) and ongoing verbal creativity (all over the web) meet in a word trend that can be political, derogatory, or just silly and humorous, depending on the context.

Since at least 1932, "stan" has migrated from Indo-European languages to English as a word for countries such as Uzbekistan and Tajikistan, as shown here in this Oxford English Dictionary quote: "When all the land in the Stans is collectivized in cotton plantations, say the Soviet governors, then the wheat, meat and vegetables are to come over from the Ukraine, Siberia, and the Caucasus." Though "-stan" and "-istan" still have a fresh feel as suffixes in English, they've been used that way for longer than you would think. The OED finds examples as far back as 1960: "However much we may cut it up into ‘Bantustans' and ‘Whitestans,' South Africa will have to remain an interlinked economic and political unity."

Many stan-words are derogatory, and some OED examples sound mildly disparaging ("...the U.S. Ambassador to Somewherestan...") or severely disparaging ("I want Bush to stop tolerating the nastystans of Central Asia"). Some insulting variations have become established, especially "Trash Can-istan," which Grant Barrett defines as Afghanistan or "any poor Middle Eastern country or central Asian republic." Barrett has also located the terms "Dearbornistan" and "Londonistan," noting that these terms are used to signal an abundance and disapproval of Muslims. That association extends, in a less awful way, to the web, where "Weblogestan" is the Iranian slang term for their blogs, and I have to second Barrett's motion that this term deserves wider use.

But if nasty insults were the whole story of "-stan," I wouldn't have written this column. In many cases, the origin of the suffix is as far away as the counties that spawned it, and the new words are pure, gleeful cleverness, with no slur intended. As with so many word trends, the financial crisis has grabbed a piece of the action, as writers living in Debt-istan and Bailout-istan have speculated that our next stop might be Cardboard Box-istan. Sometimes, the suffix is just a way of being redundantly amusing, like when my friend Jack wrote, in an email, "Back to Minneapolis-stan." As usual, my favorites are the kind of goofy, giddy one-offs I collect in my Wordlustitude blog, such as "Dejuvu-istan," "Hey-look-over-there-istan," and "Outer Bungholestan."

There's a lengthy history of slangy references to place, as you well know if you've ever been on Easy Street or remember Veronica Corningstone's pre-sex demand in Anchorman: "Take me to Pleasure Town!" When you've spent as much time in Loserville as I have, you know that "ville" is used the same way, and it has been for a long time: the OED traces its use as a suffix back to 1567. The term seems to have spread in the U.S. in snowclone-like sentences like these quotes from 1891 ("Then he was as frisky as a young colt and a slugger from Sluggersville") and 1932 ("I'm telling you you're the biggest bonehead from Boneheadville"). Geographically and linguistically, there's not much distance between Boneheadville and Lower Buttmunchistan.

Why do these words flourish? As Michael Adams pointed out in Slang: The People's Poetry, suffix mayhem is a common feature of language creativity, and "Like poetry, slang is the aesthetic exercise of linguistic ingenuity." Lexically, it's just more fun to go to Sex-istan than to have sex, and it's better taking a one-way trip to Demise-istan than to die. The "-istan" suffix is fresh enough that it can knock us out of our habits and stupors, fulfilling, as Adams says, "the complementary needs to fit in and to stand out."

Now if you need me, I'll be seeking asylum in The Shield season-five-istan, my favorite vacation spot.

via Alan Levine / Flickr

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