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Kabul, Afghanistan

Afghanistanism

From Bukhara we head due south, over the Hindu Kush and the fringes of the Himalayas, and on to Afghanistan.

At first glance, it might not feel as if there would be much etymological gold to mine in these mountains, but you probably know more Afghan-related words than you might realise. As the name of a type of decorative shawl, for instance, the afghan arrived in English in the 1830s. As the name of a type of equally decorative style of carpet, it turned up in the 1870s. The afghan hound emerged in the 1880s. And the fashions of the 1970s left us with an afghan sheepskin coat.

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But hidden away among the little-used political terms in the dictionary is a much more obscure word that namechecks its home nation of Afghanistan even more blatantly than any of these:

‘Afghanistanism’ appeals to some editorial writers because they get involved in no local controversies by discussing the sad state of affairs in Afghanistan.

The journalistic term Afghanistanism refers to the preoccupation of some writers, commentators, politicians and the media with events in far-flung locations, at the expense of discussing more contentious or more pressing issues closer to home. But why pick on Afghanistan?

Afghanistan has been in a near-constant state of war and insurgency since the late 1970s, but as the article above proves, the term Afghanistanism was in use as far back as the 1950s – while the Oxford English Dictionary has recorded the term in use as long ago as 1948. At that time, however, the country was in a period of relative peace and prosperity: despite maintaining a close relationship with the Axis powers of the Second World War, Afghanistan officially remained neutral throughout. In the late 1940s, with both the American and Soviet governments looking to increase their influence on the country, Afghanistan’s king, Zahir Shah, accepted financial aid from both sides, and the nation suddenly flourished through the building of new infrastructure, transport links and its first university in modern times. So if you’re looking for the ‘sad state of affairs’ mentioned in the quote above, you might be looking for quite a while.

So why would a word relying on the domestic press’s preoccupation with Afghanistan have been coined at a time when Afghanistan itself was in the ascendancy? That, admittedly, is a tough question to answer – and one that has led to suggestions that perhaps here all is not what it seems.

Conceivably, the word Afghanistanism was simply coined at random, and the reference to Afghanistan is entirely irrelevant. After all, Afghanistan is the first country in the world alphabetically, so perhaps its name acted as the template for this term for no reason other than that it is a distant country whose name is familiar from the top spot of geographical lists and inventories.

Or perhaps, more plausibly, Afghanistanism is a much older word than we have so far been able to prove. Maybe it was coined during the British government’s preoccupation with the Anglo-Afghan wars of the late 1800s, or during the Afghan Civil War of 1929? During genuine times of a ‘sad state of affairs’?

Until further evidence is forthcoming, we can only speculate. But regardless of its origins, Afghanistanism has nevertheless earned its namesake country yet another place in our dictionary.

The Afghan hound was originally also known as the barukhzy, the name of the Afghan tribe who developed and popularised the breed in its native Afghanistan.

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