The eyes, met with this word, may not quite know what to do. You may begin to stare at parts of it: the comb of the m on the end, the fireplace of the h, the slinky scarf of the s or the cozier curve of the a, the p at the opening, perhaps ready to pop…
Certainly the mind will go a bit woolly. How, after all, do you say it? Are the letters in the right order? There’s an ash in the middle, but is this really more than mixed-up remnants of mashed potatoes or shampoo? Is there ham or spam? Is it from Hampshire or the Hamptons?
You figure that it must have a two-beat rhythm, pa-shm. You might stick in a schwa between the “sh” and the “m”. But when you say it, you hear it: so soft, like falling into pillows. The mouth opens but is quickly closed again and then stays closed, lips pressed into a hum, like someone who was about to say something but had a marshmallow quickly popped into the mouth… Perhaps the lips are sealed with a kiss, an act of passion.
In fact – I’ll tell you – the pash isn’t quite like the start of passion. It is an “ah” as in are or as in father, or it could be more central, like the vowel in lush. And then if you can slide onto the “m” straight from the “sh”, do so; otherwise, make it rhyme with hush ’em.
There’s no way this is an originally Germanic word. No, it’s not, you’re right. If you think it looks like pasha, yes, it does, and though it’s not cognate, they do come from the same language: Persian. Ah, exotic Persian… also known in modern times as Farsi. It is an Indo-European language, and many of the words in it are obviously related to their equivalents in many other Indo-European languages (including ours). For instance, if you were to take your pashm and have a shirt made of it, you could use the Persian word for shirt: kamiz. Give it to your mother: mader. Give her six: shesh.
You may have reasonably inferred that pashm is a fabric. In fact, I have misled you slightly: pashm actually refers to the wool of the changthangi goat, which is indigenous to the Himalayas, notably Kashmir (there’s a reason Kashmir sounds like cashmere, by the way: they’re two spellings of the same word, originally). The goats are now often raised in the Gobi desert and outer Mongolia. The word pashm is simply the Persian word for “wool”.
The fabric made from it, for its part, is called pashmina. Ah! Now, does that look familiar? You may have seen it coming. And if you know what pashmina is, you know that you don’t usually make shirts from it. (Wool shirts?) No, in fact, you’re far more likely to get a shawl made of it. And that shawl can also be called a pashmina. And if you give your mother six pashminas, she’s very lucky, and you’re probably rather well off, I must say.
Or you could get her a different kind of Pashm: Max Pashm. He’s the “King of Falafel Techno”; his band play Jewish/Greek/Balkan ethnic-techno music. You could get her a copy of his CD Never Mind the Balkans, Here’s Max Pashm. Assuming she’s a Sex Pistols fan, she’ll recognize the reference – and the album cover design – right away.