English Words of Arabic Origin

You may not realize it, but many English words have their origins in Arabic language.  Here are some pretty common ones whose backgrounds I think are particularly interesting:

Alcohol (الكحل) – Originally meaning a finely ground or sifted material, and eventually meaning  a purified material or “quintessence,” achieved through a distillation process.

Algebra (الجبر) – Meaning “completing or restoring broken parts.”  The mathematical meaning derives from a 9th century book that was not translated into Latin until the 12th century.  The origins of Algebra can be dated back to the Babylonians, who developed advanced mathematical systems which included algorithms.

ImagePage from the 9th century algebra book, “The Compendious Book on Calculation by Completion and Balancing”

Candy (قندي) – Stemming from the word, “qand,” meaning sugar cane, which was cultivated with artificial irrigation by the medieval Arabs and exported to the Latins.

Coffee (قهوة) – Coffee was first cultivated in Yemen in the 15th century, and quickly spread throughout the region, becoming particularly popular in Turkey.  Cafe Mocha was named after the Yemeni port and coffee exporting city of Mocha.

Turkish-Coffee2

Turkish Coffee

Ghoul (غهول) – Ghouls are a staple of Arabic folklore, and were first introduced to the Western world in a French translation of 1,001 Nights.

ghoul

Giraffe (جرافة) – Giraffes and their distinctive appearance were discussed by medieval Arab writers.  The animal was first introduced to Italy from a zoo in Cairo in the late 13th century.

giraffe

Mattress (مطرح) – Stemmed from the Arabic verb “tarah,” to throw, and became known as a padded blanket to lie upon.

Sugar (سكر) – Cane sugar originated in India but was produced by medieval Arabs on a larger scale.  The modern words for sugar in English, French, Italian, Spanish, and German all stem from Arabic.

There are dozens of other examples like these.  I think they all serve as an important reminder of how interconnected different cultures are, whether or not we realize it.

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4 thoughts on “English Words of Arabic Origin

  1. It’s interesting that the word “alcohol” heads the list. I have to admit that I associate the Middle East with the “no alcohol” dicta (except in secular Turkey). (Except in maybe Lebanon). (Except in the rich boys’ playgrounds). (Except in Israel). I’m wondering of the exceptions outweigh the rule. And if not, what are the unwritten rules for enjoying alcohol? Is it only enjoyed by men? During holidays or celebrations? Do the rules apply to western tourists throughout the Middle East? I’m ignorant but curious.

  2. I didn’t even think of that when I was writing the post, but you are right. I guess the original meaning had nothing to do with the drink, and then expanded over time. You got the exceptions pretty much down. I would say in general, there is no/little alcohol in very predominantly (practicing) Muslim societies, as the “no alcohol” dicta stems from the Quran. If you consider yourself to be a practicing Muslim, you definitely don’t drink. The people who I have met who do drink in the region (outside of secular Turkey, Christian Lebanon, parts of Tunisia and Israel) do not consider themselves to be religious. It is basically an all or nothing edict, you either drink regularly or not at all, and this goes for both men and women. The social acceptability of foreigners drinking varies per country as well, with it being outright illegal in some countries and acceptable in others. In general, it’s mostly just a matter of respect and common sense, in Turkey, I drank pretty much everyday, in Morocco, rarely, and only inside my house.

  3. Another thing I’ve noticed is that secular muslims will drink alcohol, but not eat pork. The pork prohibition is somehow stronger than the one for alcohol. (Maybe like Catholics who use contraception, but still feel compelled to give something up for lent.)

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