According to traditional etymology, the word ʿajam comes from the Semitic root aʿ-j-m. Related forms of the same root include, but are not limited to:
mustaʿjim: mute, incapable of speech
ʿajama / ʾaʿjama / ʿajjama: to dot – in particular, to add the dots that distinguish between various Arabic letters to a text (and hence make it easier for a non-native Arabic speaker to read). It is now an obsolete term, since all modern Arabic texts are dotted. This may also be linked to ʿajām / ʿajam "pit, seed (e.g. of a date or grape)".
Homophonous words, which may or may not be derived from the same root, include:
ʿajama: to test (a person); to try (a food).
Modern use of "ajam" has the meaning of "non-Arab".
The verb ʿajama originally meant "to mumble, and speak indistinctly", which is the opposite of ʿaraba, “to speak clearly”. Accordingly, the noun ʿujma, of the same root, is the opposite of fuṣḥa, which means "chaste, correct, Arabic language". In general, during the Umayyad periodajam was a pejorative term used by Arabs who believed in their social and political superiority, in early history after Islam. However, the distinction between Arab and Ajam is discernible in pre-Islamic poetry.
During the Umayyad period, the term developed a derogatory meaning as the word was used to refer to non-Arab speakers (primarily Persians) as illiterate and uneducated. Arab conquerors in that period tried to impose Arabic as the primary language of the subject peoples throughout their empire. Angry with the prevalence of the Persian language in the Divan and Persian society, al-Hajjaj ibn Yusuf ordered the official language of the conquered lands to be replaced with Arabic, sometimes by force (including cutting out the tongues of Persian speakers, further popularising the term "mute"). Persian resistance to this mentality was popularised in the final verse of Ferdowsi's Shahnameh; this verse is widely regarded by Iranians as the primary reason that they speak Persian and not Arabic to this day. Under the Umayyad dynasty, official association with the Arab dominion was only given to those with the ethnic identity of the Arab and required formal association with an Arab tribe and the adoption of the client status (mawālī, another derogatory term translated to mean "slave" or "lesser" in this context). The pejorative use to denote Persians as "Ajam" is so ingrained in the Arab world that it is colloquially used to refer to Persians as "Ajam" neglecting the original definition and etymology of the word.
According to Clifford Edmund Bosworth, "by the 3rd/9th century, the non-Arabs, and above all the Persians, were asserting their social and cultural equality (taswīa) with the Arabs, if not their superiority (tafżīl) over them (a process seen in the literary movement of the Šoʿūbīya). In any case, there was always in some minds a current of admiration for the ʿAǰam as heirs of an ancient, cultured tradition of life. Even the great proponent of the Arab cause, Jāḥeẓ, wrote a Ketāb al-taswīa bayn al-ʿArab wa’l-ʿAǰam. After these controversies had died down, and the Persians had achieved a position of power in the Islamic world comparable to their numbers and capabilities, "ʿAjam" became a simple ethnic and geographical designation.". Thus by the ninth century, the term was being used by Persians themselves as an ethnic term, and examples can be given by Asadi Tusi in his poem comparing the superiority of Persians and Arabs.
Accordingly: "territorial notions of “Iran,” are reflected in such terms as irānšahr, irānzamin, or Faris, the Arabicized form of Pārs/Fārs (Persia). The ethnic notion of “Iranian” is denoted by the Persian words Pārsi or Irāni, and the Arabic term Ahl Faris (inhabitants of Persia) or ʿAjam, referring to non-Arabs, but primarily to Persians as in molk-e ʿAjam (Persian kingdom) or moluk-e ʿAjam (Persian kings).".
In the Persian Gulf region today, people still refer to Persians as Ajami, referring to Persian carpets as sajjad al Ajami (Ajami carpet), Persian cat as Ajami cats, and Persian Kings as Ajami kings.
Belad Al-Ajam meaning "Land of the non-Arabs (Persians)" and Khaleej Al-Ajam meaning Gulf of the Ajam (Persian Gulf), seen here on an Ottoman map
Although claimed otherwise by Mahmood Reza Ghods, Modern Sunni Kurds of Iran do not use this term to denote Persians, Azeris and Southern Kurds. According to Sharhzad Mojab, Ecem (derived from the Arabic ‘ajam) is used by Kurds to refer to Persians and, sometimes, Turks.
Adjam, Hajjam, Ajaim, Ajami, Akham (as Axam in Spain for ajam), Ayam in Europe.
In Turkish, the usage of the term is not applied to any ethnic group, but instead appears to have evolved from the original Arabic usage for outsiders in-general and shifted into a different meaning as the term ajemi (in modern Turkish acemi) literally means rookie, clumsy, inept or novice. The word, with this meaning, has been borrowed into languages of the former Ottoman Empire such as Bulgarian and Macedonian (аджамия), Serbo-Croatian (adžamija), and Greek (ατζαμής).
^گفتمش چو دیوانه بسی گفتی و اکنون
پاسخ شنو ای بوده چون دیوان بیابان
عیب ار چه کنی اهل گرانمایه عجم را
چه بوید شما خود گلهء غر شتربان
Jalal Khaleqi Motlaq, "Asadi Tusi", Majaleyeh Daneshkadeyeh Adabiyaat o Olum-e Insani(Literature and Humanities Magazine), Ferdowsi University, 1357(1978). page 71.
^Encyclopedia Iranica, "IRANIAN IDENTITY iii. MEDIEVAL ISLAMIC PERIOD" by Ahmad Ashraf
^Mahmood Reza Ghods, A comparative historical study of the causes, development and effects of the revolutionary movements in northern Iran in 1920-21 and 1945-46. University of Denver, 1988. v.1, p.75.
^Mojab, Shahrzad (Summer 2015). "Deçmewe Sablax [Going Back to Sablagh] by Shilan Hasanpour (review)". The Middle East Journal. 69: 488–489.