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Acronyms and demonyms: Name that country!

The Monitor's language columnist makes a surprising discovery about Pakistan.

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The most surprising thing I have learned today is that "Pakistan" is completely made up – Pakistan the name, I mean.

I ran across this nugget in "Johnson," The Economist's language blog. The topic was why the people of Afghanistan are Afghans, not "Afghanistanis," never mind that Johnson turned up 24,400 hits when he Googled this unfortunate neologism. Even US Defense Secretary Leon Panetta has used it in a briefing at least once, although that might have been just a slip.

But here's the thing: "Stan" is a combining form meaning "country" or "home of," as in Kurdistan, home of the Kurds (not an actual country but that's another story). It really means "where they stand," I learned from the Online Etymology Dictionary, and so is a distant word-cousin of our English "stand." (Surprise No. 2 for the day.) Afghanistan is the home of the Afghans. They were a people before they were a country.

But with Pakistan, the country, or at least an idea for a country, came first; "Pakistanis," as the demonym (name for the inhabitants), came later.

The coinage of "Pakistan" is ascribed to the Muslim nationalist Choudhary Rahmat Ali, a student at Cambridge University in England, who used it in a pamphlet published in 1933. The name was an acronym, made up of initial letters of Punjab, Afghania (the North West Frontier or "Afghan" Province), Kashmir, and Sindh, with the "tan" from the tail end of Baluchistan.

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