Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

As you may have guessed from my earlier post on the phrase “Hermetically sealed”, recently, I’ve been researching both Alchemy and Hermeticism. Although they’re very interesting subjects in-and-of themselves, one fascinating facet of their study is the relative abundance of words of Arabic origin.

That might be expected, given that alchemy itself is of Arabic origin, both the practice and the word itself (from al-kimiya), but there are a surprising number of Arabic words which have found their way into English. I’d like to share a few of the more interesting or unexpected ones. As a simple disclaimer, I’m not an Arabic speaker, so I’m relying on other sources for transliterations and word meanings. Corrections are always welcome. Unless otherwise noted, all etymologies are from the Oxford American Dictionary included in OS X.

All about al

Very frequently, Arabic loanwords into English will begin with the letters “al-“. This is because, in Arabic, al is the definite article marker, just like “the” in English. Thus, in Arabic, “the art of transmuting metals” would be al-kimiya, al ‘the’, and kimia ‘art of transmuting metals’. As is frequently the case with word borrowings, this definite al has been combined with the original word, giving us ‘alchemy’.l-ġawl

However, there are many other loan words in English that begin with the Arabic al:

Algebra - From Arabic al-jabr ‘the reunion of broken parts,’ ‘bone setting,’ from jabara ‘reunite, restore.’ Albatross - From late 17th cent.: alteration (influenced by Latin albus ‘white’ ) of 16th-cent. alcatras, applied to various seabirds including the frigate bird and pelican, from Spanish and Portuguese alcatraz, from Arabic al-ġaṭṭās ‘the diver.’ Alcohol - Either from Arabic al-kuḥl, a powder of Antimony Sulfide, or from al-ġawl, ‘spirit’ or ‘ghost’ (which is apparently the same source from which we get the words “Spirits” (referring to alcohol) and “ghoul” for a ghost). See the Wikipedia article for the fascinating etymology. Aldeberan - This star is named after the Arabic word al-dabaran, ‘the follower’

Unexpected Arabic

However, not all Arabic words have the telltale al-. There are a number of words that I found while researching for this article which I would never expect to have derived from Arabic. Here are a few of them:

Arsenal - from French, or from obsolete Italian arzanale, based on Arabic dār-aṣ-ṣinā’a, from dār _‘house’ + _al- ‘(of) the’ + sinā’a ‘art, industry’ (from ṣana‛a ‘make, fabricate’ ).

Orange - Orange, as I’ve discussed before, is derived from the Arabic nāranj

Apricot - from Portuguese albricoque or Spanish albaricoque, from Spanish Arabic al ‘the’ + barḳūḳ ‘Apricot’

Assassin - from French, or from medieval Latin assassinus, from Arabic _ḥašīšī _‘hashish eater.’

Magazine - from French magasin, from Italian_ magazzino_, from Arabic makzin ‘storehouse,’ from kazana ‘store up.’ The term originally meant [store] and was often used from the mid 17th cent. in the title of books providing information useful to particular groups of people.

Sofa - from French, based on Arabic ṣuffah. A full explanation can be found here.

Sugar - from Old French sukere, from Italian zucchero, probably via medieval Latin from Arabic sukkar.

Zero - from French zéro or Italian zero, via Old Spanish from Arabic ṣifr ‘cipher.’

We’re all one big family

As corny as it sounds, this is proof that in this world, no one culture or language is an island. No matter how distant a culture or people may seem, there’s usually some small thread that ties us together.

Right now, tensions between Westernized countries and the Arab world are mounting and people are starting to question if these cultures have anything at all in common. That’s a silly sentiment, though. Next time you want to reassure yourself that we’re all cut from the same cloth, just grab yourself an Arabic speaker, hop on the sofa, and have yourself some oranges and sugar. You’ll find yourself communicating better than you could have ever imagined.

Update: A number of readers have commented and emailed to expand upon the etymologies here as well as to mention a few other Arabic derived words that I’ve missed. So, make sure to check out these wonderful comments, and feel free to add your own.


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