Persian family vocabulary gets very specific. I mean, there are 8 different ways to say “cousin.” I like to think it’s because family is the backbone of Iranian society, and Iranians are extremely family-oriented. But these same words that indicate relationships extend beyond the confines of family and relatives and are used with friends or even total strangers. So let’s do a quick review of Persian family vocabulary, and then get into their cultural uses.
Once you know the basic family members in Persian, learning the rest is a breeze.
پدر Pedar (bâbâ): father (dad)
مادر Mâdar (mâmân): mother (mom)
پسر Pesar: son (also, boy)
دختر Dokhtar: daughter (also, girl)
خواهر Khâhar (âbji-informal): sister
برادر Barâdar (dâdâsh-informal): brother
شوهر Shohar: husband
زن Zan: wife
خاله Khâleh: [maternal] aunt
دایی Dâei: [maternal] uncle
عمو Amoo: [paternal] uncle
عمه Ameh: [paternal] aunt
Now that you know those, you can figure out the 8 ways to say “cousin”:
Dokhtar khâleh: (daughter of maternal aunt) cousin
Pesar khâleh: (son of maternal aunt) cousin
Dokhtar dâei: (daughter of maternal uncle) cousin
Pesar dâei: (son of maternal uncle) cousin
Dokhtar ameh: (daughter of paternal aunt) cousin
Pesar ameh: (son of paternal aunt) cousin
Dokhtar amoo: (daughter of paternal uncle) cousin
Pesar amoo: (son of paternal uncle) cousin
And now (kind of like with the cousins), you essentially just connect two people to give their relationship.
Pedar shohar: (father of the husband) father-in-law
Pedar zan: (father of the wife) father-in-law
Mâdar shohar: (mother of the husband) mother-in-law (also a four-letter word, like in most other places in the world.)
Mâdar zan: (mother of the wife) mother-in-law
Zan barâdar: (wife of brother) sister-in-law
Khâhar shohar: (sister of husband) sister-in-law
Zan amoo: (wife of paternal uncle) aunt
Shohar khâleh: (husband of maternal aunt) uncle
(You see where I’m going with this. It just goes on and on….)
A few others family members:
مادر بزرگ Mâdar bozorg: grandmother
پدر بزرگ Pedar bozorg: grandfather
نوه Naveh: grandchild
والدین Vâledeyn: parents
همسر Hamsar: spouse
خواهرزاده Khâhar zâdeh: (remember the suffix zâdeh means “born of”, so this is literally, “born of the sister”): niece or nephew
برادرزاده Barâdar zâdeh: (literally, “born of the brother”): niece or nephew
بچه Bacheh: child
جاری Jâri: sister-in-law (more specifically, the wife of your husband’s brother)
باجناق Bâjenâgh: brother-in-law (more specifically, the husband of your wife’s sister)
نامزد Nâmzad: fiancé/fianceé
عروس Aroos: daughter-in-law (also, bride)
داماد Dâmâd: son-in-law (also, groom)
Khâleh vs Ameh
When it comes to aunts, khâleh (maternal aunts) are more beloved than ameh (paternal aunts). Khâleh doesn’t have to be your actual aunt, though. A close family friend can also be referred to as a khâleh. Like I would call my mom’s best friend Khâleh Susan. Also, little kids in Iran call women they aren’t related to khâleh. For instance, my doorman’s son who is about 8 calls me khâleh. Once he wanted help with his English alphabet flashcards and asked, “Hey khâleh, could you write down the Persian equivalent of the English letters for me?” It reminded me of the elementary school kids in Chile who called me tía.
In Persian, when someone feels a little too welcome in a place (where they probably shouldn’t), we compare it to khuneh-ye khâleh (maternal aunt’s house). For example, if you go to someone’s house for the first time and start rummaging around in their fridge, they might say (or think), “Mage khune-ye khâlate?” (Where do you think this is- your [maternal] aunt’s house?) Or “Engâr khune-ye khâlashe!” (It’s as if he thinks he’s at his maternal aunt’s house!) Because everyone loves their khâleh. You are allowed to feel comfortable and at home at your khâleh’s.
Ameh, on the other hand, does not possess such a high status among the relatives. When my nephew was born, I dreaded being called ameh. “Can he just call me khâleh instead?” I asked my brother. Luckily, that crisis was averted by using the more neutral English “auntie.” Why did I have such a problem with ameh? You know how English has ‘yo momma’ jokes? Well, those kinds of jokes in Persian are reserved for the ameh. If someone insults you, you could shoot back ammat (your [paternal] aunt). That’s the simplest example I can give you. The ameh jokes can get pretty vulgar. I really see no need to go there in detail.
Amoo vs Daei
When it comes to uncles, amoo [paternal uncle] are more beloved than daei [maternal uncle]. Similar to khâleh, kids call close family friends amoo. (And remember, in keeping with the Persian quirks, the amoo will also call the kids amoo to indicate endearment- same with khâleh.) Guy friends even call each other amoo (sometimes dâei) to mean something along the lines of “dude”.
And Tehran has no shortage of eateries with amoo in the name. There’s Amoo Yahya (famous for its omelet and dizi), Amoo Sohrab (which serves traditional Iranian dishes), and everyone’s favorite, Amoo Hooshang. (I wrote about Amoo Hooshang’s dive last year for Roads and Kingdoms. I was actually kind of proud of that article, so if you haven’t read it, I’m giving you permission to leave and do so- but please come back.)
For as much attention as amoo gets, daei does not. It’s kind of neutral- not good or bad. Just there, often forgotten… like the middle child.
Pedar vs Mâdar
Young people might call an elderly person [stranger] pedar (father) or mâdar (mother) as a sign of respect. There’s a really old man I sometimes see walking down the street carrying his groceries. He walks very slowly and often stops to take breaks. Once I stopped and asked, “Salaam pedar (Hi, father). Can I help you?” Of course, there should be a big age difference with the person you say this to. You don’t want to embarrass yourself like the man who called my cousin mâdar only to find out she was about 30 years younger than him.
Dokhtar vs Pesar
Elderly people will call younger people dokhtaram/pesaram (my daughter/my son). There is one elderly taxi driver who always calls me (and other passengers) dokhtaram. And in a video I had posted on Instagram from my road trip to Ardabil, the lady is making bread, and at the end, she hands it to the young guy and says, “Befarmâid, pesaram,” (Here you go, my son).
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The local bread on the right was delicious, but let me tell you the lady on the left was deep frying that dough and sprinkling it with sugar 😋 She told me they were called "koluche ashayer" (something like tribe/nomad cookies). What is it about fried dough that makes the world a better place? She says in the video that if you eat one, you'll want more. I devoured three 🙄 . . . #ardabil #iran #sarein #mustseeiran #mypersiancorner_diary
Khâhar vs Barâdar
When there isn’t too big of an age gap, Iranians may use khâhar/barâdar (sister/brother) with each other. (I feel like I tend to hear these words tossed around a lot in heated discussions.)
Dâdâsh vs âbji
Dâdâsh is a more informal version of “brother.” My dad’s younger brothers call him dâdâsh. It indicates a closeness in their relationship. When guy friends call each other that, it’s like the English “bro”. (And in the words of one of my guy friends- “If a girl calls a guy dâdâsh, it means he’s been friend-zoned.)
Âbji is the more informal version of “sister”. I remember my mom and aunts calling their older half-sister âbji. To me, it seemed like a form of respect (especially because she was much older), but it always sounded a bit old-fashioned.
It absolutely makes my skin crawl, though, when someone calls me âbji (and I can confidently say that almost all Iranian women would agree with me.) Once, I had a really young taxi driver ask me, “Kojâ miri, âbji?” (Where are you going, sister?) It sent a shiver down my spine as I nearly snapped back, “I’m not your damn âbji!” I know that saying âbji or khâhar implies that they see you as a sister, but can we just do away with âbji altogether? A simple khânum (miss) would suffice.
Bachehâ (children) is commonly used between friends to mean “guys”. For instance, “Bachehâ (Guys), let’s check out that new restaurant this week.” Or a few days ago, I was in a shared taxi sitting in the back with two other girls around my age. When one of them got out, she said, “Bebakhshid bachehâ, (sorry, guys).” (Because we had to get out first to let her out.)
Bachehâ can also be used to refer to your click. My cousin sent me a text the other day. “We’re planning to get together tomorrow for breakfast bâ bachehâ (with the guys [our click])”. When you use bachehâ in this manner, who you’re talking about is understood since it’s your regular group of friends.
I’ve heard this one as an idiomatic expression, as in pesar khâleh nasho! (literally, “Don’t be a cousin!” [son of your maternal aunt]). It means “know your limit/don’t get fresh/don’t get too close/friendly.”
(While Persian has eight different ways to say “cousin”, I find it maddening that there’s no word for “cousins.” When I want to mention that I was hanging out with a bunch of my cousins, I end up having to say something like, “dokhtar/pesar khâleh, dâei…. hâme (everyone).” It’s annoying.)
I hope you found this post helpful. While I was writing it, I began to have all these doubts. You know how that happens when you overthink something? Anyway, I turned to a trusted friend to confirm I wasn’t crazy about these cultural uses of the words and that I got it all straight. At the end of our conversation, I thanked him for his help.
“Anytime, âbji,” he joked.
“Ghorbunet, dâdâsh,” I replied.
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