The Prefix “Abu” and "Um" in the Arab Culture
BY: Sara Alsayed / Arab America Contributing Writer
Calling out one’s name has always been by using that person’s name and in some cases Mr, Mrs, Ma’am, etc. However, have you ever heard the word (Abu or Um) used to call someone? These prefixes are excessively and commonly used in Arab societies.
Abu is an Arabic word that means “father of” and Um means “mother of”. In Arab communities, people often addressed one another by their kunya (Arabic, “nickname”).
Let us take an example of a man named Mohammad who had a son named Omar; he would not be called Mohammad, but rather, Abu Omar. Similarly, if a woman is named Dalal and had a son named Hamza, she would be called Um Hamza.
And, if they did not have a son, this would not apply; nonetheless, imaginary kunyas developed; therefore, someone with no sons would be called, for example, Abul Iz or Um Jihad (Iz meaning honor and Jihad meaning struggle). Therefore, commonly men and women tend to be known to close friends as the Abu or Um of their eldest son.
Having a son in Arab societies has always had great significance. The reason behind this is that the male son will take the family name; however, the woman would usually take the husband’s family name; therefore, losing her family name due to marriage.
Using Abu or Um is a sign of respect and honor for the people being called, especially to the woman. In Arab societies, women are considered as sacred and precious, so calling women by their name is disrespectful and an insult to their honor. As for older men and women, it is also seen as disrespectful to be called by their first name. In addition, it reminds the people that this man or woman has someone to lean on, has a son to rely on, and will take care of him or her if anything would happen to them.
Also, Abu and Um are used as comedic kunya. So, let us say a man has a thick mustache. As a joke between friends, they may call him Abu Shwarib, which translates to Abu the mustache. It gives a sense of ownership and possession to that person. And it attracts people’s attention towards the mustache. It could also be used as a compliment. For example, a woman has gorgeous long hair. Girls, as a compliment, call her Um Al-Sha’ar Al-Taweel, which translates to Um the long hair. It gives a sense of ownership and recognition to that person.
In addition, in American societies, the equivalent of Abu and Um is the ma’am and sir. The word sir and ma’am, which are respectful terms used to address men and women, can also be used when not knowing the person’s given name. It is a good way to get away with talking to someone without knowing their name. But be careful not to use this with the younger generation because you will most likely get a weird look or two.
So, if you ever run into an Arab woman or man, make sure to never call them by their given name. Either use sir or ma’am or ask the man and woman what I should call you?
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