Another post from the British Library’s Asian and African studies blog (see this LH post from 2019), The Term ‘Shater’ and its Use in the India Office Records:

As part of cataloguing the India Office Records (IOR), we occasionally come across unfamiliar terms that make us question their origin and how they relate to the way they are used in the records. The case under consideration here is the term shater (pl. shaters), used in the IOR to refer to foot messengers. Shaters were employed to travel long distances, usually within Persia [Iran], in short periods of time to deliver letters to and from local governors, merchants, or the East India Company’s representatives. This post traces the possible roots of the term shater, and its development throughout history to bear the meaning of a foot messenger.

Arabic language dictionaries indicate that the term shater (Ar. shāṭir pl. shuṭṭar [sic: should be shuṭṭār — LH] has its origins in the root sh-ta [sic: should be ṭa — LH]-ra, which primarily means to distance oneself from family or tribe; someone who is shrewd at finding ways to do things, or overcoming obstacles. These meanings relate directly to a group known in Pre-Islamic Arabic literature as al-Sa‘alik [sic: should be ṣa‘ālīk — LH] [Brigands]. Members of this group were exiled by their tribes, and sometimes they chose to distance themselves. As they grew up alone, they developed their own life-style, and adopted certain characteristics that distinguished them from others. They were said to be ‘sharp, brave and as agile as horses’ (Dayf, Tarikh al-Adab al-‘Arabi, pp. 375-378). […]

Several groups that were similar in nature to the Sa‘alik emerged in the early ‘Abbasid period (750-1258) under various names and characteristics. Among them were the shuttar. These were often associated with another group known as al-‘Ayyarin, vagabonds who appeared to drift aimlessly from one place to another. Besides sharing the Sa‘alik’s characteristics, the shuttar were well-organised, and worked collectively under an elected leader. […] By the mid-ninth century, the role of a shater had evolved from being a trouble-maker to someone who worked closely with the authorities. […]

Because of their nomadic lifestyle, the shuttar became familiar with landscapes, languages and dialects, which perhaps helped them to be recruited as foot messengers. This was particularly true of the Persian Court shaters, who in addition to their role as the Shah’s special guards, also worked as foot messengers. One of the foremost Arabic lexicons that defines the term shater as foot messenger is the Taj al-‘Arus by al-Zubaidi (d. 1790/1). In addition to the usual meanings of the term shater, al-Zubaidi equates the term with a courier who delivers mail over long distances in a short period of time.

It is most likely that al-Zubaidi was influenced by how the term shater was used in Persia at the time. Derived from the same Arabic root, in Persian the term shater means someone who is shrewd, fast, and fearless. […] While some Arabic dictionaries from the 18th century onwards described the term shater as a foot messenger, this was not how it was used by Arabic speakers. Instead, the term kept its initial meaning and developed an additional complimentary one. Today, describing someone as shater is considered a compliment. When translated into Persian, the term was first used with reference to a special guard who preceded the Shah’s army. However, the characteristics of a shater led to the development of a new position as part of an already well-established Persian postal system.

The piece could have been better organized, and I wish they were less cavalier about transliteration, but hey, it’s a blog post, and it’s interesting stuff. Surprisingly, there doesn’t appear to be a Hobson-Jobson entry, but here’s Platts. Thanks, Trevor!


  1. Interesting. I had no idea this rather specialized sense existed, but the word šāṭǝṛ شاطر is routine in Algeria for “smart, shrewd”. You can say it to praise a child (“good boy!”), or use it more disparagingly of someone who thinks he’s too smart to follow the rules.

  2. “Derived from the same Arabic root, in Persian the term shater means someone who is shrewd, fast, and fearless.” – Reminded me Moscow лихач 1. a reckless driver 2. private taxi (=частник). Which in turn reminds me Swahili bodaboda, border-border.

  3. LH, delete please the above (except the bodaboda part)?

  4. It ios a collection of drafts over a few days – I started to write a few times, then distrated by something else, started to type the same thing again. And over time it accumulated into such a шлейф:)

  5. Heh. As I was reading along, I was increasingly wondering what you were talking about!

  6. Thank you. At least this time it was boring.

    (The previous time it was about big penises. I used them as a metaphor for what makes certain jobs attractive for men. The idea was that having such a job is the same as having one. It was unclear how to express it without metaphors, and I began typing a question to my freind. Months later the question – a half of it – was accidentally copied to here and posted.)

  7. I keep a tab open for such purposes (the text there doesn’t disappear when I restart the computer).

  8. Great, now I have this pop song (شاطر Šāṭir “Good boy”) from the Lebanese singer Nancy Ajram stuck in my head. It was inescapable in 2007–2008, a time in my life when there was always Arabic pop radio on somewhere in the background.

    I feel like there is some other word like šāṭir that somewhere, in some languages, has developed the meaning “rascal, scoundrel” on the one hand and “clever, good” on the other, but I am blanking on it.

    On and off in the Ottoman palace, too, for several centuries, there was a position called şâtır, something like a page. (Article in Turkish on the topic here.) I looked for something on the Persian šāṭir in the Encyclopaedia Iranica, but there seems to be no article on the subject yet. There is, however, the name of its late editor, Ehsan Yarshater (Persianيار yār “friend, companion, lover”).

  9. PlasticPaddy says

    This may not be the word you are thinking of, but Italian furbo (“clever like a fox”) can be used to praise a clever person or to indicate a person is malicious or lacks scruples. A similar semantic range applies to glic in Irish:

  10. I feel like there is some other word like šāṭir that somewhere, in some languages, has developed the meaning “rascal, scoundrel” on the one hand and “clever, good” on the other, but I am blanking on it.

    I don’t know any such word, but I find it unsurprising: clever rascal is a fairly standard English-language collocation.

  11. David L. Gold says

    @ Xerîb. Ehsan Yarshater was born to Baháʼí parents, who had converted from Judaism before his birth. Knowing whether it was acquired during the Baháʼí period or the Jewish period in his family’s life might help shed light on its genesis.

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