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7/9/9 Word of the day: Nishan

Nishan is an Arabic word meaning “straight”. You can use it in directions, as in “Drive straight down this road until you pass the cross-eyed goat.” You’ll more often hear it used to describe someone’s character.

Someone who is nishan is honorable, honest, upright, trustworthy, etc. It seems odd – and rather sad – to me that most of these words have fallen out of common usage. My favorite hanoot guy is very nishan. I rarely even do the math to figure out what I owe him; I just let him tally it up in his head or on his little hand-held calculator and then hand him the cash. I don’t even count my change. I trust him; he’s nishan. My host father, Baba, is utterly nishan. So is Fatima’s host father. If we need to do business with a man in town who’s not nishan, her host dad might accompany us or might just take care of it; that’s how good a guy he is.

The closest English idiom dates back to the 1950s or ’60s, and would be something like “straight arrow” or “straight shooter”. My dad claims that the word “square” meant something similar, before it came to be synonymous with “lame” or “loser.” The nineteenth-century equivalent would probably be “upright” or even the long-abandoned “gentleman/lady,” though that may have had more to do with class than honor.

The antonym to nishan is ifrgh, meaning “curvy”. Like most Tamazight adjectives, it can be conjugated. Tfrght means “You’re curving!” or “You’re being dishonest/deceptive/dishonorable/naughty!” I’ve taught several local children the card game known in America as “I Doubt It” or “BS”, and I always call it “tfrght”. When someone plays a card and you think they’re lying about it, you shout “Tfrght!” and they flip it over to reveal whether they’ve in fact been ifrgh or nishan.

Yesterday, I was asked to write a personal reference for a friend’s job application. They asked me to evaluate her character, honesty, integrity, etc. My first reaction was, “She’s perfectly nishan! Then I realized that I probably can’t write that in a job reference, and wondered why English doesn’t have an equivalent expression. Any suggestions, dear readers? What’s your favorite way to say that someone is nishan? (No need to give me your favorite translation of ifrgh. I’ve got plenty of those, from lying, low-down, crooked dirty snake on up.)

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