10 English Words that Originated from The Arabic Language
By: Pauline Farris/Arab America Contributing Writer
Arabic has two forms: Fusha, a classic version of the language that is used in formal contexts, and Aamiya, a spoken colloquial version. The latter usually varies between countries and regions. It is a central Semitic language that shares roots with Aramaic and Hebrew.
English speakers often find Arabic a challenging language to learn for several reasons, not least that it is written right to left. Another barrier is the presence of sounds in Arabic that have no equivalent in English. However, it is a beautiful, poetic language that offers great opportunities for creative expression. For instance, there are at least 11 distinct words for “love” in Arabic.
However, have you really ever thought about the origin of English words? You may be surprised to learn that contemporary English borrows heavily from old Arabic phrases. For centuries, people have been buying, selling, and traveling around the Mediterranean. As a result, Arabic words have been assimilated into and shaped by many other languages.
Here are a few examples of words with Arabic roots:
In ancient Arabic, the word al-kuhl means “the kohl,” a dark, finely milled powder used for emphasizing the eyes. When Europeans first encountered this substance and learned how it was produced, they started to use the term alcohol as a general term to describe fine powders and volatile liquids.
Later, Arabs began to use al-kuhul to describe wines and spirits. Today, al-kuhl and al-kuhul both have a place in the Arabic language.
The first recorded use of “Amalgam” can be found in 13th-century alchemy texts. Although the texts are written in Latin, it’s likely that the term originated in the Arabic al-Malgham.
“Coffee” has its origins in the Arabic word qahwa. The coffee plant, which is thought to originate from Ethiopia, was imported to Yemen hundreds of years ago. The local people referred to it as qahwa, a term previously used to denote a wine.
Qahwa has a long history, having been filtered through several languages. It was transformed into kaveh in Turkish regions, koffie in the Netherlands, then finally “coffee” in English.
This word used to describe an evil being that feeds on the bodies of the deceased comes from the Arabic word ghūl, which is in turn rooted in the verb ghāla-“to seize.”
Although “ghoul” has been traditionally used in reference to supernatural entities, it can also be used to describe a person who is fascinated by unpleasant or morbid phenomena.
Lemon” and “lime” are both rooted in the Arabic word lim, an ancient term for citrus fruit, now in Arabic, Laimoun. In contemporary English, “lemon” is also used as a derogatory term for a disappointing item or purchase.
“Magazine” can be traced back to makhzan, an Arabic word for “storehouse.” The word appeared for the first time in a European language in the 13th century as magazenum, a Latin word meaning “storeroom.”
Italian speakers changed it to maggazzino in their language, and the French then used it as the basis for their term magasin, which is used in reference to a commercial store.
In the 18th century, English speakers began using “magazine” as a term to describe a set of writings aimed at the general public.
This word comes from the Arabic al-matrah or tarraha, which roughly translates as “the large cushion or rug for lying on.” It has also roots in the Arabic taraha, meaning “he threw down.”
Medieval Latin speakers then changed al-matrah to matracium, which then became materasso in Italian and materas in Old French during the 13th century. Today, English speakers use the term in reference to a large sprung cushion rather than a rug.
The word “sofa” also comes from Arabic. The original word was suffa, an Arabic word that became “sofa” in Turkish. In the Arab world, a suffa was an elevated carpeted platform designed for sitting.
“Safari” has only been in widespread use since the 19th century, but it has origins in the Arabic word safar, which means “to travel” or “to make a journey.” In Swahili, “safari” literally means “a journey” or “an expedition.”
The term used to denote lengthy trips for the purposes of trading and migration. However, in modern parlance, a safari refers to a supervised vacation trip, usually through African countries such as Kenya.
In modern English, a racket is either a piece of equipment used in sports and games, a loud noise, a scheme that guarantees an easy source of income, or a scam.
The Arabic word rusgh, which means “wrist,” referred to a game played with bats and balls. It was later adapted by speakers of other languages to describe a piece of sporting equipment.
A zenith is something or someone’s highest point, and was originally used in astronomy. This word has a complex history. It stems from the Arabic expression samt ar-ra’s, which means “path above the head.”
During the Middle Ages, Latin scribes condensed the phrase to samt but wrote it incorrectly as cenit or enit. Cenith and then zenith made their appearance in 17th-century English.
If you are interested in etymology, you’ll be happy to learn that this list is merely the tip of the iceberg! A little research will uncover hundreds of other words that have made their way directly or indirectly from Arabic to English. They include adobe, admiral, alchemy, algebra, alkaline, artichoke, candy, cotton, gazelle, giraffe, hazard, jar, orange, sherbet, sugar, syrup, tariff, and zero.
Pauline Farris speaks Portuguese, English, Spanish and Italian and currently she works as a translator at translation service TheWordPoint. She traveled the world to immerse herself in the new cultures and learn languages. Today she is proud to be a voting member of the American Translators Association and an active participant of the Leadership Council of its Portuguese Language Division.