Arabic Words in English You Didn't Even Know You Knew

Algorithm and sofa, candy and apricot, algebra and zero, and so many more are actually Arab migrants.

Elon Gilad
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Spice store in Dubai souq: You might know more of the spice names than you thought. Credit: McKay Savage, Wikimedia Commons
Elon Gilad

"East is east, and west is west, and never the twain shall meet," Rudyard Kipling wrote. Nonsense! The two have been meeting for centuries, leaving their mark on both Arabic and the languages of Europe. Here are 40 English words that you never knew came from the Arab Middle East.

Arabic words generally didn't enter English directly. They usually arrived through other European languages, chiefly Spanish and Italian, and were of two main types: scientific terms - reflecting the preeminence of the Arab world in science during the Middle Ages, and the names of goods, reflecting both the origin of the goods and the status of Arab merchants in trade during this period.

The concept of nothingness in math

First and foremost, we have the Arabs to thank for the word zero, if not the concept, though it isn't clear which civilization invented it first – the Indians or the Babylonians. The word "zero" is a corruption of the Arabic word for nothing, sifr, which is itself a mistranslation of ūnya, the Sanskrit word for "empty". In contemporary Arabic sifr means both "zero" and "nothing".

Sifr is also the origin of cipher and naturally enough decipher.

While on numbers, the English word algebra comes from the Arabic word al-jabr, which means “the restoration.” It derives from the title of the 9th century book "‘Al-kitb al-mutaar f isb al-jabr wal-muqbala" (“The Concise Book on Calculation by Restoration and Compensation”) by the Persian polymath Muammad ibn Mūs al-Khwrizm. The book was translated into Latin in the 12th century, and eventually al-jabr morphed into algebra, which took on the sense we know today.

This was not al-Khwrizm’s only contribution to English. His name itself, which means “the native of Khorezm” (currently Khiva, Uzbekistan), became the English word algorithm.

Moving on to chemistry, alkali (the opposite of acid) comes from the Arabic word al-qali (“soda ash”). Quite ironically, the English word alcohol comes from Arabic al-kohl (“kohl”), powdered antimony used as eye makeup. The Arabic word entered European languages in the Middle Ages, originally meaning kohl, then fine powder, then essence - and then ethanol, the essence of wine.

In the field of astronomy and navigation, Arabic can chalk up claims to azimuth, from as-sumūt (“the directions”) and also the related zenith, from samt-al-r's (“the direction of the head”).

Nadir (the lowest point) similarly derives from nar as-samt (“opposite the direction”).

Arabs were such important trading partners to Europe, and many words from commerce originate in Arabic. Arsenal comes from the Arabic dr al-ina (“house of manufacturing”) and magazine come from makhzin (“storehouse”). Jar comes from Arabic jarrah and ream (as in a quantity of paper) comes from rizma.

Then there are the many products Arab traders introduced to Europe: Artichoke comes from Arabic al-arūfa, carob from arrūba, coffee from qahwa, saffron comes from zafarn, sumac (the red spice, not the poisonous plant) comes from summq, caraway (as in seeds) comes from al-karawiy, tarragon from arkhōn (which probably itself originates in Greek), and tamarind comes from the Arabic tamr hind (“Indian date”).

The chain starting in Sanskrit

Both lime and lemon come from Arabic lma, though ultimately both words came through Persian, from the Sanskrit word nimbū.

Orange made a similar journey from India, starting with one of the south Indian Dravidian languages, perhaps the Tamil nram, then via Sanskrit and Persian to Arabic nranj, which eventually made its way to English by way of Italian, (possibly Portuguese), and French.

The related tangerine gets its name from the Moroccan port city of Tangier, from where the small citrus had once been shipped.

Aubergine, another name for the noble eggplant, originated in the Sanskrit word vtiga-gama (“plant that cures wind”), which made its way to Persian in the form of bdengn, which was transmitted to Arabic al-badinjn, which made its way into Catalan albergínia, then French aubergine and finally into English.

Apricot probably started its way in the Latin word praecoquum (“ripe before its time” or “precocious”), which made its way into Greek praikókion, which then made its way into Arabic as al-burqūq, which returned to Europe through Italian and Spanish, then to French and eventually to English.

Cotton comes from qoton, jasmine from yasmn (possibly of Persian origin), and hashish, or for short hash, comes from the Arabic hashsh (“dried herb”). The drug also gave its name to a religious sect renowned for smoking the stuff and also to its method of eliminating the competition - the ashshn, which begot the English word assassin.

Some furniture items also originated far far away: mattress came from the Arabic mara (“a place where something is thrown”) and sofa from the Arabic soffa (”long low seat”).

And finally, for dessert, candy has its origins in India but came to Europe via the Arabic word qand (“sugared”). Sugar came more directly from the Arabic sukkar - as did the words syrup, sherbet, and sorbet, all of which came from the Arabic word sharb, which does not however mean anything sweet. It simply means "beverage".

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