Written by Alan Pimm-Smith
far, no surprises: The three words mentioned refer to aspects of Arab
or Islamic life, so naturally they are expressed in Arabic. But it may
come as a surprise to learn that more commonly used words, such as names
of well-known fruits and vegetables, were once considered exotic. Apricots,
oranges, lemons and limes, and artichokes, spinach and aubergines (eggplant)
all have Arabic names. Lemon, for instance, came into medieval
English from Middle French, and before that into Middle Latin from the
Arabic laymun. Artichoke, on the other hand, is hardly
recognizable. It entered English by way of Italian from the Arabic
|This bedouin heads one of several families in Jordan’s
Badia region. The word bedouin entered English from bidwan,
the plural of bedawi, which means “desert dweller.”
are hundreds of Arabic loan words in the English language. For the most
part, they have come disguised as French, Spanish, Italian or Latin
words. For the past 1000 years, English has adopted and adapted thousands
of foreign elements, and French- and Latin-origin words account for
approximately half the modern English vocabulary. French became the
language of the English court, the nobility and parliament for at least
300 years following the Norman Conquest in 1066, when the Normans from
northern France occupied England. It remained the language used for
legal matters in England until 1731.
|This name of this fruit in English as is almost the same its Arabic
moniker: laymun. But lemon or laymun, you can almost
taste its lip-puckering flavor in either language.
the medieval times, then, it was largely through French that Arabic
words entered the English language. What is especially interesting about
these words is that the majority of them are technical terms relating
to mathematics, astronomy and chemistry. The word alchemy, which
entered English in the 1300s, comes almost unchanged from the Arabic
al-kimya, which itself is derived from Greek. Alkali and
almanac entered the English lexicon about the same time. The syllable
al- in these words comes from the Arabic definite article al
(the). So, for example, alkali is derived from al-qili,
defined as the ashes of the saltwort plant. Almanac, which comes from Arabian astronomy, is derived from al-manakh, defined as the climate.
civilization was at its height during the Middle Ages, which lasted
to the late 1400s, and for 500 years or so Arabic was the language of
learning, culture and intellectual progress. Most of the classical Greek
scientific and philosophical texts were translated into Arabic during
the ninth century. From this foundation, Arab scholars, scientists,
physicians and mathematicians made great advances in learning that were
then passed on to western Europe via the Islamic universities in Spain.
For example, we owe the decimal system of computation to Arab mathematicians,
based as it is on the Indian concept of zero. And the word zero,
like its synonym cipher, comes from the Arabic sifr, meaning
learning was widespread in England from the 11th to the 13th century,
and indeed beyond. One of the foremost scholars in Europe was Abelard
from the English city of Bath. He translated the astronomical tables
of al-Khwarizmi, who is credited as the founder of algebra, from Arabic
into Latin in the early 1100s. Two mathematical terms entered the
language in this way: algebra and algorithm. The latter
word is taken from al-Khwarizmis name itself, while algebra
comes from al-jabr, a word in one of al-Khwarizmis mathematical
treatises that translates as the reunion of broken parts. Curiously
enough, both the Arabic al-jabr and the English word algebra also refer to the surgical treatment of fractures or bone-setting. The
Oxford English Dictionary gives the original meaning of algebra as the
surgical treatment of fractures and quotes a citation from 1565:
This Araby worde Algebra sygnifyeth as well fractures of bones, etc.
as sometyme the restauration of the same.
of the greatest contributions Arab scholars made to science was the
development of astronomy. If you look at a modern star chart, youll
find hundreds of stars whose names derive from Arabic: Altair, Aldebaran,
Betelgeuse, Vega, Rigel and Algol, to name a few. Algol comes from the
Arabic al-ghul, a word meaning demon, from which the English
noun ghoul and its adjective ghoulish
are derived. Algol was named the ghoul by the Arabs because
of its ghostly appearance, for it appears hazy and varies in brightness
every two days.
|Carats galore. The word carat is derived from girat, for a small measure of weight. For gold, however, carats measure purity: the higher the number, the finer the gold, and 24-carat gold is 99 percent pure.
we weigh precious stones in carats and measure paper in reams thanks
to Arabic: girat is a small unit of weight; rizmah is
a bale or bundle. Two other words of interest in this category are
average and alcohol. Average, our word for a commonplace
mathematical concept, is derived from an Arabic word awariya,
meaning damaged goods. This came about because costs relating to goods
damaged at sea had to be averaged out among the various parties involved
in the trade.
alcohol? This word is derived from al-kohl, the fine black
powder that is used in the Middle East as a sort of medicinal eye shadow.
The relationship between the black powder and alcohol as we know it
is not readily visible. You can see the link, however, if you think
of the powder as the essence or pure spirit of a substance.
fact that many technical and scientific terms entered English from Arabic
during the Middle Ages suggests the general superiority of ArabIslamic
civilization in the area of scientific achievement during this time.
Revealing, too, is the fact that the next broad category of Arabic words
suggests an advantage in terms of luxury and creature comforts and,
thus, a higher standard of living.
the time Elizabeth I (15331603) ruled England, English merchant seamen
were discovering the world beyond Europe and bringing back rich and
exotic objects, materials and customs from the Middle East and beyond.
Significantly, many of the Arabic words that travelers brought back
with them at this time suggest a gracious, even luxurious style of living.
Sugar, syrup, julep, sherbet and marzipan
are all Arabic in origin, though the average housewife at the time would
not have included any of them on her weekly grocery list. Coffee
comes from the Arabic gahwah, which originated in Yemen, and
mocha from the Yemeni port city. Added to this are the fragrant
spices caraway, saffron, and cumin, all of which have Arabic names.
are many other interesting wordsadobe, crocus, genie
and popinjay, for examplethat are all more or less garbled
versions of Arabic words. Even the word garbled can be traced
to Arabic. It comes from gharbala, meaning to sift or select,
and refers to spices for sale. Over time, the meaning of garbled
shifted to the idea of mixing and confusing. But garbled or not, the
store of words derived from Arabic has greatly enriched the English
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Alan Pimm-Smith is a free-lance writer who worked as a teacher and journalist in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf countries for many years. He now lives in Turkey.