Updated: 28 August 2018
The other day I was feeling frustrated and muttered under my breath, khabare margeshun! (the news of their death!) and chuckled upon realizing what I had said. Suddenly all these Persian phrases related to death started piling up in my head like Jenga: marg! (death!), boro bemir! (go die!), che margeshe? (what’s his death?). And then the mother of all phrases came to me: marg bar [Amrika]! (death to [America]!) It seems we Iranians have a death wish worse than Charles Bronson. So what’s the deal? Well, here’s my take on why Iranians chant “death to America” (and other places and people) and a lesson on the many Persian phrases related to death.
About this whole “Death to America” thing…
Now just a word about my people and this last phrase because as an Iranian-American, I can definitely understand how it would be offensive. Ask any Iranian, and they will tell you how ugly this phrase is and that they wish it would just go away. But it’s how we express ourselves linguistically. And when we do use this phrase, it strictly refers to governments, not people. Unfortunately, this is where a lot of misunderstanding happens. I have to say that Iranians are much better than Americans when it comes to differentiating between people and their governments. The way I see it, Iranians don’t view governments as representative of the people, so it’s very clear to us that when we say “death to America” or “down with America” (or any place else), we are solely talking about the government. I think Americans, on the other hand, tend to view governments as representative of the people and therefore equate the two (maybe less so these days). So when they hear this, they think it’s about them. Oh, the ego! Trust me, it’s not about you. Oddly enough, Americans are the one nationality Iranians love more than any other. How many Americans would say the same about Iranians?
But back to more important language matters. Saying “death to” anything sounds strange and flat out awful in English. Instead, English tends to damn people or send them to hell. Iranians, on the other hand, go straight for death, and these expressions just fit with Persian. You’d think that being the poetic creatures that we are, we’d find a more lyrical way of expressing ourselves, but I guess death is, after all, the ultimate sacrifice. One minute we’re willing to die for you with ghorbunet beram and fadât besham (let me sacrifice myself for you), mimiram barât (“I love you”; literally “I’ll die for you”), or elâhi bemiram barât! (“I feel so bad for you”; literally “Oh God, may I die for you”). But if you get on our bad side, we will just as soon wish for your death. (And let’s just say, the US government has crossed the line with us.)
Let’s dive into more Persian death-related phrases.
Persian Phrases related to death
English equivalent: Shut up!
This is similar to the expressions khafe sho! (“shut up”; literally, “choke!”) or zahre mâr (“shut the hell up”; literally, “snake poison”). Tone plays a huge role in this one to distinguish whether you mean it or are saying it jokingly because it can go both ways.
Literally: The news of his/her death!
You’ll use this referring to someone you don’t like. Take a “politician” you don’t care for who made a stupid remark. “Every day he makes an idiotic comment! Khabare margesh!” Meaning the only thing you really want to hear about him is the news of his death.
You could, however, use it with someone you like, but who is annoying you. In this clip from the comedy Shahgoosh, Officer Sorkhi is annoyed with his subordinate’s dillydallying and says, “Weren’t you supposed to return the car, khabare marget!? (here, the informal “you” is used). Again, tone has a lot to do with it.
مرده شورتو ببرن
Morde shureto bebaran
Literally: May they take your washed, dead body
English equivalent: Damn you!
In Islam, when someone dies, the body is taken to a mordeshur khune (literally “dead washing house”) to be washed. So you can imagine that when you hear this phrase, the person is so fed up that they wish someone would die and their body be taken to be washed and buried (kind of like khabare margesh above).
Literally: Go die!
English equivalent: Shut up! or Get the hell out of here!
In this clip, also from Shahgoosh, Officer Sorkhi is telling his friend that he needs to lose weight. Offended, Officer Khofte turns to him and says, boro bemir kachal! (go die baldy!) Again, tone makes a big difference in how this is conveyed.
(Conversely, you could also say namiri (don’t die) sarcastically to mean “don’t strain yourself” when someone is half-assing something.)
Literally: What’s his death?
English equivalent: What the hell is his problem!?
You can use it for objects too. Like if your car won’t start, you could say in mâshin che margeshe? (what the hell is wrong with this car?) It’s pretty strong if you say it to a person, though- stronger than in English.
Literally: My death
This is used the same way as jâne/joone man in swearing that you are telling the truth. You got it, folks. You can swear both on your life and death. If you ask it in question form, marge man?!, it means “Really?/Are you serious?!” And just a couple of days ago, I had to use marge man in a taarof battle over who was going to pay the bill. Needless to say, when you swear on your death, it’s the final blow. The other person loses all leverage, and you pretty much win the battle.
(You can also swear on the death of another person, like a family member, which is even stronger.)
خدا مرگم بده
Khodâ margam bede!
Literally: Oh God, give me death!
See? We even wish for our own death upon hearing absolutely shocking news or when we have done something that we are completely ashamed/embarrassed about. Forget to pick up your kid at school? Khodâ margam bede! My cousin often uses this phrase after we take a picture. She sees herself and shrieks, “Khodâ margam bede! I look like an elephant! I need to go on a diet!”
Literally: If I die
You may hear this during exchanges of taarof over who is going to pay. “Man bemiram, I won’t let you pay!” Although in this case, it has a similar meaning to “over my dead body,” it’s not a phrase on its own.
I once heard my uncles arguing over something, both trying to prove that they were right. One kept saying “Man bemiram, it is.” And the other kept answering, “Man bemiram, it isn’t.”
Phrases related to the grave
خاک تو سرت / خاک بر سر
Khâk tu saret or khâk bar sar
Literally: Dirt on your head
This is something like saying you should feel deep shame for something [perhaps because of something stupid you’ve said or done]. Khâk tu saret comes from pouring dirt of someone’s head at a funeral. I’ve actually witnessed this, and it’s pretty shocking. I was at a funeral once, and instead of comforting her with a hug or something, I saw a son who kept picking up fistfuls of dirt and pouring it on his mother’s head as she wept for her daughter. I kept thinking my vision was blurry through the tears, but it wasn’t. A few months later, I was talking about this scene with a student who is a psychiatrist, and he stared at me blankly, not really getting why I was in such shock. But without judgment, he proceeded to explain that for Iranians, it’s symbolic of being hopeless now, as in how can they carry on with life any longer. But it’s also supposed to soothe and help with grieving. The explanation helped, but it’s nevertheless still strange to me.
Literally: His father’s grave!
English equivalent: To hell with him!
کدوم گوری هستی
Kodum goori hasti?
Literally: Which grave are you?
English equivalent: Where the hell are you?
When you are searching for someone and can’t find them, you think they are dead (I mean, obviously…), so you say this. It’s not a nice phrase to use, but it is used when you are angry. In yet another clip from Shahgoosh (and I can’t stress just how linguistically clever this show was), Officer Sorkhi can’t find his subordinate, Âb Parvar, and over the speaker yells, “Âb Parvar, khâk bar sar kodum goori hasti?, literally, “Âb Parvar, dirt on your head, which grave are you!?” or “Âb Parvar, you stupid idiot, where the hell are you!?”
گورتو گم کن
Gooreto gom kon!
Literally: Go lose your grave!
English equivalent: Get lost!
Other Persian phrases related to death
Literally: Would you have died?
English equivalent: Would it have killed you?
As in, “Would it have killed you [to do X]?”
Literally: We didn’t die and…
As in Namordim o yeki sar khat keshi barâm vâistâd (It finally happened [I didn’t die and] someone waited for me to cross at the zebra crossing.) Here, the plural form of “we” is used to mean “I”. So basically, you’re saying that something [good] happened, and you got to witness it before you died.
Literally: I died!
English equivalent: I’m exhausted.
Like if you’ve been studying for an exam, and you still have a ways to go. “I’ve been studying for days. Mordam!”
Said of a person who is super thin, and commonly collocated with lâghar (thin), as in lâghar mordani. In fact, in that book Diary of a Wimpy Kid, “wimpy” was translated as lâghar mordani.
Literally: We died until…
For example, if you’re stuck in heavy traffic, and it takes you forever to get somewhere. Mordim tâ residim! (We died until we [finally] arrived), meaning that it nearly killed us and we lost our patience.
Why so many phrases related to death? Well, let’s just say we are passionate people (with a flair for drama).