Sorkh Razil: Language Log asks you

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The story line in the Doonesbury strip for the last week or so (I omit links because direct links to within the domain apparently don't work) has been about Jeff Redfern masquerading as an Afghan superhero figure of his own invention (and getting to meet a somewhat credulous and off-his-meds President Karzai). In his superhero persona, Jeff styles himself Sorkh Razil, the Red Rascal. But a minute or two conferring with online Pashto dictionaries fails to confirm the meaning and transliteration of either the word sorkh or the word razil.

I did find a word meaning "red" that was not too distant from sorkh: it did begin with s, and it did have an r in it; but it wasn't close.

There may well be dialect issues here, of course: I know that the Ghilzai and Durani dialects of Pashto differ (and the fact that the language name is found romanized as Pakhtoo, Pakhtu, Paktu, Pashto, Pashtu, Passtoo, Pushto, and Pushtu should tell us plenty). But my knowledge about Pashto (Ethnologue code PBT) is very scanty.

In any case, perhaps the phrase is supposed to be in one of the other languages of Afghanistan, such as Dari Persian (but notice, the real-life Karzai is a Pashtun).

So for once, Language Log asks you (those of you, that is, who know something about Afghan languages): did Gary Trudeau do his research well? Is sorkh razil an appropriate standard transliteration of an idiomatic phrase in Pashto (or any other relevant language) that does indeed translate as "(the) red rascal"?


  1. D.O. said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 5:47 am

    It seems to be Persian. At least brief Google search shows that sorkh is red in Persian. If Wikipedia is to be believed Persian (Dari) is the most common language of Afghanistan. For the hack of it, I tried to translate (using Google translate) rascal into Turkish. Number 11 comes as rezil. In back translation infamous, outrageous, villainous, etc. Red in Turkish has no obvious connection to sorkh. Some 11% of Afghan population (if the same Wikipedia article is correct) speak Turkic languages (Uzbek and Turkmen).
    Huge disclaimer: I do not know anything about any of the languages mentioned above except what I could glean from Google translate in 5 minutes.

  2. Browser said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 5:49 am

    Well, I don't know about Pashto, but "surkh" is red in Urdu, though "razeel" means wretched, vile, or base (sometimes used in reference to the lower caste among Muslims) so it doesn't quite have the same sense as "rascal" that Trudeau intends.

  3. AlexB said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 7:35 am

    Sorkh is indeed red, but in Farsi/Dari the construction would be razil-e-sorkh.

  4. Coby Lubliner said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 8:49 am

    Trudeau has included, in several strips (e.g. this one), a footnote to the effect that the language is Pashtu.

    While Karzai is a Pashtun, it's my impression (from the Afghans that I have met) that upper-class Pashtuns tend to speak Persian with one another, more or less in the way that, once upon a time in Belgium, upper-class Flemings spoke French.

  5. S. Norman said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 9:03 am

    Could it be that 'razil' is just English 'rascal' mispronounced?

  6. language hat said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 10:11 am

    I knew my big Pushtu dictionary would come in handy one day! While it is true that سرخ surkh 'red' and رذيل razīl 'low, base, vile; (here) rascal' are Persian/Dari (the latter is from Arabic radhīl), they have both been borrowed into Pushtu, and since in Pushtu surkh is used as the first element in compound words (e.g. surkhbād '[red sickness =] erysipelas'), whereas in Persian/Dari, as AlexB says, the order would be reversed, I think it's reasonable to conclude this is in fact Pushtu, or at least thinkable Pushtu (I have no idea whether Pushtu speakers would actually use the form).

    [The word "thinkable" is used in memory of my dissertation director Warren Cowgill, who used it frequently and with relish.]

  7. cameron said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 10:34 am

    language hat has it right. Sorkh is Persian and razil is originally from Arabic but used in Persian (transliteration with /z/ reflects Persian pronunciation). And as noted by language hat and AlexB, the normal Persian word order would be noun followed by adjective, with the ubiquitous -e- particle in between, serving as the connective tissue for the NP. One does see proper names sometimes reverse that order – putting the adjective at the head of a compound noun (many toponyms and hydronyms have that structure) . But I think that as the name of a putative superhero Razil-e-sorkh would be more natural that Sorkhrazil

  8. zoetrope said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 11:52 am

    I sent this question to a friend of mine who works with interpreters in Eastern Afghanistan and he asked them for help. Here is the relevant part of his response:

    "Sorkh" is Dari for "red." However, in modern Dari, "sorkh" also means
    "Western" or "American." I guess because are faces turn red or show
    color when we are hot, cold, mad, etc.

    Pashtu for red is "Soor," but in this instance, that is irrelevant.

    "Razil" is a much more complicated word and carries a lot more
    negative connotation than the English translation of "rascal." It has
    the same meaning in Dari or Pashtu.

    "Razil" is a person who is offensive, shameful, sinful, rude, and
    sexually active.

    I am told that if an Afghan were to randomly call another Afghan
    "razil," then that would be fighting words.

    Therefore, to answer your question, I would say that "Sorkh Razil"
    does not translate to "Red Rascal." Instead it, especially given
    contemporary events, would more accurately translate to "American

  9. hilllady said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 12:04 pm

    "Instead it, especially given contemporary events, would more accurately translate to 'American Mofo.'"

    Which about sums up Jeff, right?

  10. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 12:23 pm

    So, things are beginning to become clear (thank you, erudite Language Log readers!). Trudeau did a little research, but ended up with Dari words (if we follow zoetrope in taking sorkh to be the Dari word, and if the Pashto word is either surkh as language hat says or soor as zoetrope says), and they are in an English word order that also matches Pashto; and razil does not exactly capture the daring, dashing, but ultimately good-guy image with which Jeff Redfern attempts to endow his Red Rascal alter ego. He's apparently after a sort of romantic bandit image, very much like Zorro; but razil seems to capture more of a sort of dissolute scum image, like a drug-gang member in Juarez. It's a wonder that (as of this morning's strip) was still prepared to sit and talk with him. (Refusing to deal with Jeff on whether the Overkill mercenary security operation can be allowed to start operating in Afghanistan again, Karzai says firmly in today's strip that the answer is negative: "My position is immutable. This is not a negotiation." "Pity," says Jeff; "I was going to suggest $50 million." And Karzai says: "Now it's a negotiation." He is being depicted in the strip as a bit of a razil.)

  11. Robert Coren said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 12:29 pm

    I have this idea, whose source I have no hope of tracing, that the word "rascal" in English has gradually transformed over, say, the last 150 years, and used to be more negative than it is now — more along the lines of "scoundrel", perhaps. Is it just Recency Illusion, or is the idea of the "lovable rascal" a fairly recent one?

    If I'm right, I can see how Trudeau might have bee misled by a somewhat archaic translation (and of course he would be attracted by the similarity between "rascal" and "razil").

  12. richard howland-bolton said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 12:36 pm

    Of course considering the tenor of the strip and the characters involved, I'd like to think that Trudeau did a LOT of research and the name is delightfully ironic.

  13. Jim said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 12:42 pm

    "more of a sort of dissolute scum image, like a drug-gang member in Juarez. "

    That would be a vicious scum image. Those guys can't afford to be very dissolute, and wouldn't last long if they did.

  14. Will said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 12:54 pm

    @Robert, if your gut feeling is correct, then I'd have to say the source would probably be "The Little Rascals", which first appeared on broadcast television in the mid-1950s, which would make the time frame exactly what you quoted.

    It's possible that the phrase "The Little Rascals" was intentionally ironic when it was coined, but the term itself may have sparked a change towards a non-ironic meaning.

  15. The Ridger said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 1:49 pm

    I like to agree with Richard Howland-Bolton. Given that Jeff invented this character out of the whole cloth, I hope that we eventually discover that his attempt to name himself does in fact mean American mofo…

  16. Troy S. said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 2:31 pm

    If it's Dari as opposed to Pashto, the expression would be رذل سرخ
    Razl-e Sorkh. Normally the adjective follows the noun it modifies, so maybe it's a naive translation.

  17. George Amis said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 3:45 pm

    @Robert Coren. While it's true that most of the OED's early listings for rascal are very negative, the earliest use in a "playful or affectionate" way is from Ben Jonson in 1601. So yes, it's a recency illusion.

  18. Lane Greene said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 5:43 pm

    I think we can safely conjecture that Trudeau or an assistant looked up "red", took the first word they found, looked up "rascal", took a nice-looking word, and just plunked them down. People with little foreign-language experience often don't even think to ask themselves "but what if these words inflect somehow? what if adjectives and nouns come in a different order? what if some special construction is needed?" They find the bare dictionary form and of each word in English order and think that's good-enough translation. I'm not even being critical – I just have seen that that's how non-language-nerds think it's done. I, for one, can't draw a cartoon.

  19. Kaviani said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 5:46 pm

    However, in modern Dari, "sorkh" also means
    "Western" or "American." I guess because are faces turn red or show
    color when we are hot, cold, mad, etc.

    How confounding. Could that be a spin on "redneck"? I'm guessing they have different terms for non-white Americans/Westerners.

    In any case, it's very Frank Herbert of Trudeau to come up with that. I'm pleased.

  20. Ken Brown said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 6:28 pm

    I think "rascal" can still be quite derogatory in some Northern English and West Indian contexts. In my ideolect its a little old-fashioned an probably humorous.

  21. Doug said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 7:03 pm

    On the Red = Westerner point:

    I seem to recall reading that Australian aborigines often describe white people as "red", perhaps because some of their languages lack a separate word for "pink", and light red / pink is a pretty good description of the color of "white" people's skin. (Certainly a better description than "white"; I don't know anyone whose skin resembles snow.)

  22. Rodger C said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 7:31 pm

    If snow be white, why then Jeff's nose is dun. Or red.

  23. marie-lucie said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 7:39 pm

    I have a book called "The White Man", which is about how people in many parts of the world (especially in the Southern hemisphere) perceive(d) the intruder from Europe. In the majority of cases the "white man" is called the "red man", because very fair skin (like that of many British people) exposed to a lot of sun turns red (a dark pink) rather than brown.

    Some years ago I was watching French TV, where a Frenchman was recounting his trip to Japan. He had had a conversation with a Japanese man who kept saying "We white people …", so the Frenchman said "If you are white, what am I?" – "Oh, you are pink!".

  24. marie-lucie said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 7:54 pm

    fighting words

    It is very difficult to gauge from a dictionary definition the precise meaning and degree of offensiveness of a derogatory word.

    The term "rogue state" became popular a few years ago (I think). It seems to me that this phrase must be derived from rogue elephant and means something like outlaw state, one not respectful of international laws or customs. In French this appears as "un état voyou", which is inappropriate but probably comes from a dictionary equivalence for just "rogue": un voyou is almost a "scoundrel" but he is usually young – a deliquent on the borderline of criminality. A little boy who deliberately threw a rock through a window, for instance, could be called un petit voyou (there is no feminine equivalent). I wonder how Sarah Palin's book title "Going Rogue" would be translated into French, since voyou here would be quite unsuitable because of both meaning and gender.

  25. language hat said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 8:53 pm

    Trudeau did a little research, but ended up with Dari words in an English word order…

    Am I talking to myself here? They are Pashto words in Pashto order. Why should they match Dari? And why assume that Trudeau "did a little research but ended up with" a mistake that seems based on your assumptions rather than on his actual words? Which, I repeat, are perfectly good Pashto.

    [Your comments have definitely been noted, hat; I have altered my comment above to clarify. If the Pashto order is Adjective-Noun, then we don't know whether Trudeau got a good Pashto translation or simply assumed the English word order; and if zoetrope is right, sorkh is Dari, and if you are right, the Pashto would be surkh. Have I got anything wrong there? —GKP]

  26. Joe Fineman said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 9:10 pm

    The OED gives the oldest extant meaning of "rascal" as "A low, mean, unprincipled or dishonest fellow; a rogue, knave, scamp", but immediately adds "Used without serious implication of bad qualities,or as a mild term of reproof", with citations from 1586 & 1610 respectively. In my childhood (1940s) it was chiefly an affectionate, pseudo-insulting form of address by adults to children.

  27. George said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 9:30 pm

    Joe Fineman: "Used without serious implication of bad qualities,or as a mild term of reproof"

    I don't think we would describe Hitler as a rascal. I think of rascal as someone who violates certain rules or conventions, but has some endearing qualities.

  28. Faldone said,

    October 22, 2010 @ 10:49 pm

    Of course, the question is not what "rascal" means in English, but what "razil" means in Pashto.

  29. maidhc said,

    October 23, 2010 @ 2:08 am

    Gary Trudeau usually does a lot of research, unlike many other writers. And he has a lot of contacts in the military.

    If it does mean "American Mofo" it would be totally in character. Jeff got kicked out of the CIA for being incompetent. (Among other things he shot down a helicopter at a wedding reception.)

    Now he's created a blog about this imaginary superhero, but in order to get back in the spy game he has to live the reality of his fantasy.

    I think Trudeau did the research and he knows exactly what he's doing. The story is intriguing on several levels.

  30. Des said,

    October 23, 2010 @ 2:31 am

    "Rascol" is the Tok Pisin creole word in Papua New Guinea for quite dangerous gang members.

    [It certainly is. I learned the word from an Australian newspaper headline when I was in Brisbane. The story was of a Dutch engineer who had been killed in his hotel room; a man "with the appearance of a raskol" had climbed up the drainpipe to get onto the balcony of his hotel room and kill him as a preliminary to stealing his possessions. Port Moresby is one of the world's most dangerous capitals, I have heard. —GKP]

  31. George said,

    October 23, 2010 @ 6:30 am

    @Faldone: "Of course, the question is not what "rascal" means in English, but what "razil" means in Pashto."

    The 'rascal' translation of "razil" is relevant as the original post says, "In his superhero persona, Jeff styles himself Sorkh Razil, the Red Rascal." A translation analysis would involve the meaning in both languages.

  32. language hat said,

    October 23, 2010 @ 10:08 am

    if zoetrope is right, sorkh is Dari, and if you are right, the Pashto would be surkh.

    The distinction verges on meaningless. The short /u/ vowel in Persian/Dari (unwritten, of course) varies in quality depending on dialect, and the choice of transliteration depends more on whether one wants to bother writing macrons (o:u is easier than u:ū) than on vocal quality. Both Persian/Dari and Pashto use the Arabic alphabet (with modifications that do not affect the point at issue), so speakers of either would have no basis in their own script for transcribing the vowel, and would presumably, if asked to do so, use whatever looked good to them at the moment.

    [OK; then we can assume that sorkh razil is two Pashto words, and since the order of Adjective and Noun would be the same in Pashto or English, we don't know whether it was Pashto syntax or English syntax that was assumed, but it's correct either way. Unless we take razil to be an unacceptable translation for rascal. —GKP]

  33. Dan Lufkin said,

    October 23, 2010 @ 10:38 am

    The first commercial telegraph message, Lancaster to Harrisburg, Pennsylvania on 8 January 1846, was "Why don't you write, you rascals?".

  34. J.W. Brewer said,

    October 23, 2010 @ 11:59 am

    Japanese woodblock prints of the Meiji era sometimes show "white" Europeans and Americans as noticeably redder-skinned (but not particularly lighter-skinned) than the natives. Think of English expressions like ruddy-faced or rosy-cheeked and you'll see what they were noticing. (And when people are fully clothed the face is where you're going to notice skin color the most.) But I don't know whether as a linguistic matter the Japanese word standardly meaning "red" was used to describe Westerners or their skin color.

    Thomas Sowell titled one of his essays on racial issues (as well as the book-length anthology in which it was republished) "Pink and Brown People," presumably as a sly way of suggesting that the opposition/antinomy suggested by the symbolism of white and black was not the most helpful conceptual framework.

  35. Jon Weinberg said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 3:22 pm

    @J.W. Brewer:
    Apparently at least some Western foreigners as early as the Edo period were referred to as 紅毛 , or red *haired*.

  36. Jon said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 5:21 pm

    Dutch definition:
    In an Amsterdam restaurant, I asked Dutch friend the meaning of the name of the band, which was painted on the drum. He couldn't think of the right word, and said: "Suppose you come to your bicycle in the morning, and find it has a flat tyre. Then you notice your young son grinning, and realise he has let it down as a joke. You're a bit angry, but not too angry. What do you call him?" "Rascal", I suggested. "That's it!", he said.

  37. Kivi Shapiro said,

    October 24, 2010 @ 11:26 pm

    So Jon Weinberg brings up an interesting point. Why does Jeff Redfern refer to himself as the Red Rascal anyway? Is it because of his name? Is it a reference to blood? Or is it because of his red hair? And if the last, then does that have any bearing on the felicity of his translation?

  38. Aaron Davies said,

    October 26, 2010 @ 4:53 pm

    iirc (from a college class on south-asian lit) the english in india were sometimes referred to as "red men", presumably due to their tendency to sunburn.

  39. sonali said,

    November 19, 2010 @ 8:19 am

    wat do you mean by Garsania?? in pahto?? does anyone know??

  40. Gabe Ragland said,

    March 15, 2011 @ 5:16 am

    "In any case, it's very Frank Herbert of Trudeau to come up with that. I'm pleased."

    And how can this be? For he is the Kumquat Haagendasz!

  41. Languili said,

    April 21, 2013 @ 6:11 am

    Do the references to "Persian" mean "Farsi"?

    [(myl) No.]

  42. Azad Pashtun said,

    June 11, 2013 @ 4:58 am

    'Surkh' سرخ I believe is Persian/Urdu. It'd be unusual for a Pashto speaker to use 'surkh' instead of سور 'soor'. For example سور لښکر 'Soor Lakhkar' referred to 'The Red Army'. In Urdu it'd be سرخ فوج 'Surkh Fauj'. 'Razil' is from Arabic and is commonly used in both Dari and Pashto. Yes it means all those mean things already mentioned. The construction of 'Surkh Razil' is Pashto but words are not. We'd say 'Soor Razeel'. If 'Surkh' were Pashto, it'd most probably be pronounced as 'surakh'. We often place stress at the end of words. btw is the site to go to when researching Pashto word meanings.

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