Abbott's Abode

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By now the whole world knows that Osama Bin Laden was killed in Abbottabad.  When I first saw this place name, I thought that it was curious in being composed of a British surname followed by a Hindi-Urdu-Persian ending.  We may dispense with the English part of the name through a bit of historical research:  the town was founded by Major James Abbott in 1853.  As for the ending, I was familiar with it from many other South Asian city names, e.g., Allahabad, Hyderabad, and Ahmadabad.

Then I came across this assertion, "the 'abad' in its name meaning 'a place of living' in Urdu," and that set me off on a merry linguistic goose chase, especially after a correspondent made the following suggestion: "'-abad' means 'place of living'.  I wonder if it is cognate with English 'abode'."  Such conjectures always stand to me as challenges — they're either right or they're wrong.  Thus, even though I am en route to Hong Kong, I'm trying to write up this little note on Abbottabad before my plane departs (am in the Chicago airport at this moment).  I'm determined to find out whether "-abad" is cognate with "abode".

Looking up "abode" in the Online Etymological Dictionary, one becomes even more seduced by the possibility that -abad might be related to it:

mid-13c., "action of waiting," verbal noun identical with O.E. abad, pp. of abiden "to abide" (see abide), used as a verbal noun. The present-to-preterite vowel change is consistent with an O.E. class I strong verb (ride/rode, etc.). Meaning "habitual residence" is first attested 1570s.

So "abad", the Old English past participle of abiden ("to abide") even *looks* just like Hindi-Urdu-Persian -abad.  Case closed?

Far from it.

First of all, the a's of -abad are both long, thus I will henceforth write this ending as -aabaad to indicate the vowel lengthening.

Now, I shall convey the opinions of experts on various Indian and Iranian languages (I'm not identifying them by name, since their views were conveyed to me informally, but I do thank them in a general way at the bottom of this post):

I. a specialist in ancient Iranian religions:

"-abad" means "built place" in Persian.

II. a specialist on Sogdian (Middle Iranian language):

aabaad is a Persian word meaning "watched over, cultivated, inhabited". The root is *pâ "to watch, guard, protect". I doubt whether a connection with abide/abode is possible.

III. a specialist on Modern Persian:

It's a Persian word.  I don't remember the pre-Islamic form….  I could probably find it.  It is the most common place name suffix.  It is also an adjective meaning fertile or prosperous (of places).  Abadan, the oil city in Khuzistan, is presumably abad plus the place suffix an.  The influx of Persian speakers to India between 1200 and 1700 or so brought it with them and spread it around.   I don't know if -abad is cognate with abode.

IV. a specialist on Mughal history:

Abad means city, inhabited or cultivated place and yes it if from the Persian. Abadan is the more emphatic or plural form of abad. In Persian  texts  the word is sometimes paired with an Arabic synonym ma'mur.

V. another specialist on Modern Persian:

Abad means cultivated land, and it is a Persian suffix for villages and areas which have been cultivated and inhabited.  The word "ab" means water, and there should be a middle Persian explanation for "ad", but since I am in Berlin I have no access to my reference books now.  Abadan, therefore means somewhere that is cultivated, has water, and is inhabited.  Abadi is another cognate of the same word.  Ironically, Abbottabad, is a place that has been cultivated probably by someone called Abbott, during the colonial era, and became the abode of the supreme anti-colonialist fighter now.  I like the abode-abad connection, which is very likely the case.

VI. an expert on the history of Hindi-Urdu:

Abad is a locational suffix and it is western Iranian. Here is an article from Encyclopedia Iranica by Ahmad Ashraf….  Nyberg's etymology (the Persian word derives from Middle Persian āpāt, “developed, thriving, inhabited, cultivated” [see H. S. Nyberg, A Manual of Pahlavi II, Wiesbaden, 1974, p. 25]) is probably correct, but somehow I wonder.  In any event, -abad doesn't seem related to "abode" which would appear to be from a + bidan (ME "to bide"), which is from PIE *bheidh "to stay, wait".

VII. An expert on Middle Iranian languages

Pahlavi has both "AbAd" and "AbAdAn" as "populous, thriving, prosperous" according to MacKenzie’s dictionary.

I’d be reluctant to make the "abode" connection without more intervening information. A classic wrong-at-first-glance connection with English is Persian “bad” meaning “bad”, but Pahlavi has “wad”.

I can’t find "AbAd(An)" in either Avestan or Old Persian in what I have at hand this morning. OP does have "Avahana" (A + vah-[Skt. vas-] "to dwell) meaning "village". Platts gives Zend "AvAda" and Skt. "AvAsa" for AbAd — so that's along the same lines. I don’t know how this fits with the roots of "abode"

Johnny Cheung gives another possibility for AbAd(An) in his Etymological Dictionary of the Iranian Verb (Leiden Indo-European Etymological Dictionary Series), pp. 288-289. He takes it from the root: paH — to protect, guard….

VIII. A specialist on Khotanese (a Middle Iranian language)

The Persian word -aabaad (mostly as the second member of a compound) comes from the past participle of the root "paa-" (to protect), thus "protected, fortified (place)" with the phonetic change of p > b between vowels. All the North Indian and Pakistani (as well as Central Asian) place names are from this Persian word. It has nothing to do with the English word "abode" (together  with "abide") which is cognate with numerous Latin derived words with the root element fed / fid "to trust" (not found in Indo-Iranian, but well-attested in Greek, Germanic and Slavic).

So where does all of this leave us?  On the one hand, the experts are not entirely agreed upon the etymological derivation of the Persian place name ending -aabaad, but it most likely comes from an Iranian root paa ("protect").  On the other hand, the English word "abode" appears to come from a Proto-Indo-European root *bheidh ("stay, wait").  In any event, I have not discovered any etymological or historical evidence indicating that Persian -aabaad and English "abode" are related.

[Thanks are due to Julie Wei, Nicholas Sims-Williams, Hiroshi Kumamoto, Wilma Heston, David Nelson, Stephen Dale, Brian Spooner, Pardis Minuchehr, and Richard Foltz.]


  1. goofy said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 6:30 am

    If the Proto-Indo-European root is *peh₂- "protect, feed", then "abad" is related to "food".

  2. Pflaumbaum said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 6:46 am

    If it was from a PIE root /*bhVdh-/, I think that would indeed > /bVd-/ in both Old Persian and Germanic. Both /*bheid-/ and /*bheud-/ are reconstructed PIE roots.

    But if it was from /*pVd/, we couldn't end up with /b/ and /d/ in Old English. /*pVdh/ sorts out the /d/ but runs up against root structure constraints in PIE.

  3. Bill Walderman said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 7:58 am

    Maj. Abbott is not the only European with an eponymous -abad. There are still apparently two Leninabads in Azerbaijan alone, and there were and may still be more in other parts of the former Soviet Union:,_Shamkir,_Nakhchivan

    And Dushanbe in Tajikistan was known as Stalinabad for a while:

  4. chris said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 8:07 am

    a Proto-Indo-European root *bheidh ("stay, wait")

    It's stunning to me how similar that is to its (I presume) modern form "bide", after how many millennia? Is it common for a few words to just bide their time like that while the rest of the language changes?

  5. Gwen said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 8:11 am

    Here's the entry referenced in no. XVII from John T. Platts' classic 1884 "Dictionary of Urdu, Classical Hindi, and English." I'm convinced by this; Platts has never led me astray before.

    "P آباد ābād [Z. āvāda; S. आवास], adj. Inhabited, populated, peopled; full of buildings and inhabitants, populous; settled (as a colony or town); cultivated; stored; full; occupied;—city, town (in this sense it commonly occurs as the last member of compounds, e.g. Faiẓābād, Ilāhābād);—flourishing, prosperous; pleasant; happy.—ābād-bashī, s.f. First assessment of newly settled or cultivated land.—ābād-rahnā, To be full, stored, flourishing, prosperous, happy or comfortable.—ābād-kār, s.m. The first settler on waste land.—ābād-karnā, v.t. To make (a place) habitable; to people, settle, found (a colony, &c.); to build and plant; to cultivate; to make (the heart, dil) rejoice, to comfort, rejoice (the heart); to build up (a house or family, ghar), beget (children).—ābād honā, To be full, flourishing, &c. (=ābād rahnā, q.v.); to be occupied (as a house); to have the prospect of issue; to be married."

  6. Jayarava said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 8:32 am

    Seems as though the derivation from a past participle of √pā 'to protect, to feed' is most likely for -ābād. The Sanskrit past participle is pāta; there doesn't seem to be a Sanskrit combination with ā- with this root however (āpāta is related to √pā 'to drink' only.)

    Monier-Williams links √pā to the Zend root pā; and to Greek πά-ομαι, πά-πα-μαι, ; Latin pāsco, pābulum.

    Cf Pokorny: pā- : pə-, and pā-t- : pə-t- 'to feed, graze, pasture'. However in Pokorny the pa seems to have been retained in Persian, rather than being replaced by ba.

    Wiktionary differs: "Persian: آباد (ābād) (“inhabited, cultivated; city, habitation”) < Common Iranian *āpāta-"; and "Old Persian:

  7. Mark Etherton said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 8:36 am

    Abbottabad is not the only place in Pakistan to have a partly English name. Faisalabad used to be called Lyallpur, after Sir Charles James Lyall, who was Lieutenant Governor of the Punjab in 1880 when the town was founded. The name was changed in 1977 in memory of King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, but one of the eight constituent parts of Faisalabad is still Lyallpur Town.

  8. Ian Preston said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 8:40 am

    Abbottabad is not the only place in Pakistan to have a partly English name.

    Yes, the same is true of Jacobabad in Sindh. Bannu in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa was once known as Edwardesabad. In Punjab, there's not only the former Lyallpur but also Attock was once Campbellpur

  9. un malpaso said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 9:01 am

    When I first heard the name, I thought it was an Anglicization of something like "Abadabad." It surprises me to hear that it's actually derived from Abbott, and the spelling actually makes some sense.

  10. Mary Apodaca said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 9:20 am

    How does -abad relate to -stan?

  11. dw said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 10:48 am

    @Mary Apodaca:

    Iranian stān = Sanskrit sthān,

    The act of standing or staying, stay, continuance; place, spot, locality, situation, site, space, station, stall, abode, house, dwelling, residence, home; occasion; object; place, section,

    I believe that both are cognate and ultimately come from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning "to stand".

    You can see the "h" preserved in the name of the Indian state of Rajasthan.

  12. MC said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 11:09 am

    And it is Abbott whose root is not Indo-European, but rather derived from Aramaic "abba" father.

  13. octopod said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 12:19 pm

    So (stan, sthan, stat), and (Abbott, abbé, abba), but not (aabaad, bide, abode), but rather (aabaad, pasture, panis)?

  14. Dw said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 12:53 pm

    I should have added that -st(h)an is cognate with English "stand". The Indo European root is *steh2-

  15. A Reader said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 1:10 pm

    The Old English word actually also had both vowels long: 'a:ba:d'. This is just coincidence, of course, since the long a of 'ba:d' is the regular English outcome of Germanic *-ai- (from PIE *-oi-). The modern English 'abode' shows the same development of OE a: as 'stone' < 'sta:n'.

    The a:- is a prefix of fairly vague meaning in OE. I don't know its etymology offhand, but whatever it is it shouldn't be from IE *a: (which would give **o:).

    Anyway, even if you reject the derivation of the Iranian '-abad' from *paH1 (and I don't know why you would), I don't think it would be a normal development to get Iranian **ba:d from IE *bheidh (Indo-Iranian *b(h)aidh/b(h)idh) – the Avestan form should be quite different, at any rate (*o:i in that position?). I checked on the Iranian outcomes of IE *woid, IIr. *waid, which has a similar shape, and couldn't find any middle or modern derivatives with **a: < *ai/i.

    Unless there is both some development which could account for the vowel and a reason to reject the derivation from *paH1, I'd say it's a matter of having evidence against the etymology, not simply lacking evidence for it.

    (The connection with Sanskrit 'vas' doesn't seem likely. The Avestan cognate of this is 'vaŋh', and most modern Iranian forms seem very different from 'abad' (e.g. ya:), the closest being an Eastern Iranian word 'wat' meaning 'room, bed, place'. In any case, this would make it cognate with English 'was', 'were', not 'abide', 'abode'.)

    (References from Etymological Dictionary of the Iranian Verb, Brill 2007)

  16. GeorgeW said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 1:29 pm

    @MC: The origin of 'abbot' is Semitic, but from Aramaic, not Arabic according to the "Oxford Concise Dictionary of English Etymology."

    @DW: Watkins ("The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots") gives the PIE root of 'stand' as *staa.

  17. Marc said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

    Wouldn't it be cool if there were also a Costelloabad?

  18. goofy said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 2:02 pm

    GeorgeW: That's because The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots has simplified the notation a little, I think because it is aimed at a non-technical audience.

  19. un malpaso said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 2:24 pm

    I just have to add that The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots is one of the major things that pulled me into linguistics, when I first discovered it as a high school student…. I can vouch for it pulling at least one non-technical reader into the deep end :) (I'm not a professional linguist though… just an avid layman who considers historical linguistics as perfect "beach reading")

  20. Paul Zukowski said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 3:00 pm

    @Marc: "Who's on First?" did come to mind.

  21. J. W. Brewer said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 4:31 pm

    @malpaso. Yes, me too. Or rather the non-freestanding IE Roots appendix (by Watkins) in the edition of the Am Heritage Dict I got (possibly as a math league championship prize? can that make any sense? maybe someone was trying to bridge the "two cultures" divide?) in junior high school circa. 1979. I would say the three written works that most influenced my ultimate decision to major in linguistics as an undergraduate were: that; the geeky philological appendices in the last volume of the Lord of the Rings; and Hegel's Phenomenology of the Spirit (the last simply by virtue of being the book that convinced me NOT to major in philosophy). I was actually taught Historical Linguistics as a subject in college by Prof. Watkins' spouse, but did not at the time make the connection between her and that list of roots I had spent so much time enjoyably rummaging through 5 or 6 years previously.

  22. Jen said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 4:51 pm


    I am confused by your correction to MC. You wrote "@MC: The origin of 'abbot' is Semitic, but from Aramaic, not Arabic according to the "Oxford Concise Dictionary of English Etymology.""

    But that seems to be in response to MC writing "And it is Abbott whose root is not Indo-European, but rather derived from Aramaic "abba" father."

    So, did you just misread MC's comment or did you mean to write something else?

  23. GeorgeW said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 7:51 pm

    @Jen: "So, did you just misread MC's comment or did you mean to write something else?"

    Absolutely, I misread it. My apologies to MC. I don't know how I misread 'Aramaic' as 'Arabic,' but I sure did. How embarrassing.

  24. Janice Byer said,

    May 6, 2011 @ 11:50 pm

    Abbottabad, Abbottabad, Abbottabad…oops. Hi. For me, it's definitely in the category of words "fun to say out loud" that Mark Liberman just recently solicited suggestions for a word for:

  25. John D. Martin III said,

    May 7, 2011 @ 12:25 am

    Is there perhaps any relation then to Latin "apud"? Curious.

  26. A Reader said,

    May 7, 2011 @ 8:03 am

    @John D. Martin III, the etymology of 'apud' isn't completely clear, and it's thought to be a fairly recent formation in the history of Latin. None of the proposed derivations for the word seem to connect it in any way either to *pa: 'protect' or *bheidh 'stay, wait'.

  27. Matt McIrvin said,

    May 7, 2011 @ 8:16 am

    When I heard the name in Obama's speech, I thought he'd said "Ahmadabad" and was somewhat confused at the difficulty of finding a town in Pakistan by that name (there is one, but it's quite small).

  28. John said,

    May 7, 2011 @ 10:39 am

    Why not write ā instead of aa? That whole unicode thing is pretty handy. :-)

  29. Jerry Friedman said,

    May 7, 2011 @ 1:54 pm

    @Mary Apodaca: If you were asking about the meaning as well as the etymology, we've been told -abad means "city", and the Wikipedia article says -stan means "place" and has often been applied to regions. An English cognate with a similar meaning is stead, as in instead, homestead, and various place names.

  30. Anthony said,

    May 7, 2011 @ 8:46 pm

    As for other -abads named for westerners, Pakistan boasts two places named "Sikanderabad"

  31. Rodger C said,

    May 8, 2011 @ 3:05 pm

    @Anthony: Right, named after that Scottish general, Alastair Moore. ;)

  32. Gunnar Landelius M. said,

    May 12, 2011 @ 3:52 am

    Just a curiosity, which perhaps will seem trivial: in Spanish, "abad" means "abbot". Therefore, the name of Bin Laden's hiding place has itself been hidden in the first pages of English-Spanish dictionaries, perhaps for centuries.

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