بدرنگ / badrang

‘بدرنگ / badrang’ is the standard word for ‘ugly’ in Afghan Persian, at least colloquially. The textbook-standard word ‘زشت / zišt’ assumes a rather metaphorical meaning, which also exists in Iranian Persian, e.g. ‘این کار زشتی است / Īn kār-i zishtē ast’ (‘This is some nasty work/stuff’).

‘بدرنگ / badrang’ has been one of my pet favourites in Afghan Persian due to its descriptiveness. It literally translates as ‘bad-coloured’ (with ‘رنگ / rang’ meaning ‘colour) – a bahuvrihi compound which evokes the complex semantics of the concept of ‘colour’, which, apart from its literal meaning, also refers to the way one looks, i.e. ‘looks’.

The Middle Persian word for ‘colour’ is ‘gōn’ (cf. Armenian ‘գույն / guyn’), which also means ‘complexion’, whereas with the suffix ‘-ag’ (i.e. ‘gōnag’), it exclusively refers to ‘sort, kind, form’ (MacKenzie, ‘A Concise Pahlavi Dictionary’). The Modern Persian descendant of ‘gōn’, ‘گون / gū(ō)n’, has preserved the double meaning and the word ‘گوناگون / gū(ō)nāgū(ō)n’ (‘all kinds of’, ‘various’) stands aside ‘رنگارنگ / rangārang’ (lit. ‘colour and colour’) which has basically the same meaning. ‘رنگارنگ / rangārang’ reminds one of the Japanese word ‘色々’ (iro iro, lit. ‘colour colour’) of the same (metaphorical) meaning – not ‘many colours’, but ‘many kinds’ – a mirror image of the Persian. It also reminds one of the Chinese word ‘形形色色’ (xíngxíng sèsè, lit. ‘form form colour colour’), which has exactly the same meaning (note how the Chinese character ‘色’, ‘colour’ is the same in both languages, and the kana 々 is a sign of reduplication, so the Japanese word would well be written as 色色, ‘colour colour’, like in the Chinese). Cross-linguistically, the concept of ‘form’, ‘outward look’ seems to have an intimate connection with the concept of ‘colour’.

This should not be surprising. The Chinese (and therefore Japanese) interpretation of ‘form’ and ‘outward look’ by the concept of ‘colour’ seems to have its root in the Buddhist Sanskrit word ‘गुण / guṇa’, which means ‘quality’ and may share the same root as the Persian word. ‘गुण / guṇa’ is translated with the Chinese character ‘色’, whose primary meaning is ‘colour’. In Classical Chinese we find abundant use of ‘色’ in the sense of ‘outward look’: in traditional Chinese medicine, ‘望色’, or ‘observation of the colours’ (a lit. translation in Persian would be ملاحظه رنگ / گون) is the first step to undertake in order to determine the patient’s illness.

Furthermore, in Modern Persian, the word for ‘cheek’ is ‘گونه / gū(ō)na’, a direct descendant of the Middle Persian ‘gōnag’. ‘گونه / gū(ō)na’, however, like its Middle Persian ancestor, also means ‘kind’, ‘manner’, ‘sort’, as we know from the all-too-common alternative for ‘چطور / chitawr’ – ‘چگونه / chigūna’, where the Persian substitute for the Arabic ‘طور / tawr’ is the word in question.

A Chinese medic – or any Chinese person indeed – is likely to comment on how your ‘脸色 / liǎnsè (lit. ‘face/cheek colour’)’ is as a way of forming a judgement on your state of health. That is to say that the colour of your face decides the state/quality/form of your overall health. This is perhaps why in Iraqi Arabic, which carries the spirit of Iranian languages, ‘شلونك / shlōnak (m.) شلونچ / shlōneč (f.)’ (lit. ‘What colour are you?’) is how you ask a person how they are, for speakers of Iranian languages are all too used to asking about ‘colour’ – in Shughni, ‘tsarang’ (lit. ‘what colour’) is also ‘how’. This organic connection between colour and face (cheek(s)), colour and quality, then face and quality, which in Chinese may have an Indo-Iranian origin but in Indo-Iranian itself certainly represents a shared concept, is wonderfully reflected in the Afghan Persian word ‘بدرنگ /badrang’, which, literally translated as ‘ill-formed’, is a humorously judgemental lexical item that has a long history and broad cross-linguistic resonance.

Here is a Kurdish saying containing the word ‘بدرنگ / badrang’ for all of you –

‘Her reng rengek e, bedreng jî rengek e.’
‘Every colour is a colour, a bad(ly) colour(ed) (one) is also a colour.’

Do not dismiss anyone/anything just because you think they are ‘بدرنگ / badrang’.

4 Comments

  1. This was a fascinating read!
    I love learning about etymology and word origins, but the ones I’m familiar with are Germanic and Latin centric, so I already know I’m going to learn a lot from this blog and will be following with avid interest for future varied and colourful entries!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Arabic lawn shares the same double meaning of kind/color, hence in Iraqi Arabic (and some nearby Levantine dialects) one asks esh lawnak, “how are you?”, literally “what color are you?”

    Liked by 1 person

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