To the editors:
What I am pleased to call Wyman’s First Law of Language Stupidity states that the lack of social grace that allows someone to correct another’s language is invariably accompanied by ignorance of the issue in question. Since John Perry took the time to write a lengthy letter of complaint (April 2) about a single word in a recent Calendar item of mine, I guess I’ll take the time to correct him back. An editorial glitch printed the letter before I saw it; I ask the forbearance of readers.
Perry, a professor of Persian at the University of Chicago, trumpeted that my use of the word Farsi for Persian was improper, incorrect, ignorant, and insulting. Farsi, he said, is the Iranians’ own word for their language and shouldn’t be used by English speakers. He’s being pointlessly pedantic. This is an English usage question, and the fact is that Farsi is frequently used in English as a synonym for Persian. Any current dictionary will confirm this, simply by its inclusion of the word and its omission of comparable words like Deutsch or francais. Additionally, I would cite as anecdotal evidence late 70s news reports bemoaning the State Department’s paucity of Farsi speakers, the use of the term by a colleague of mine who got her PhD in it in the early 80s, and a recent widely quoted one-liner by James Baker on his loss of perks after George Bush’s defeat. (“You know you’re out of office when your limo is yellow and the driver speaks Farsi.”) Professor Perry is free to argue, on whatever spurious grounds, that people shouldn’t use the two words as synonyms. But the fact is that they do.
The moral here is that we should speak and write naturally; the self-conscious and the nitpickers will inevitably fall into the unforgiving clutches of the mighty First Law.