Arabic Words in English: We All Speak a Little Bit of Arabic

Arabic Words in English: We All Speak A Little Bit of Arabic
© 2015 Christopher DiMatteo. All rights reserved.

Arabic words in English

Artichoke, giraffe, coffee, apricot: all these words come from Arabic.

There are many Arabic words in English that we use every day without being aware of their origin. Their presence in English shows how words have traveled with people and products over the centuries. These words belong to English as much as words borrowed from any other language. Apart from words that are simply Arabic names for cultural items or ideas, such as caliph, mosque and sheik, etc., there are several common English words of Arabic origin that we use every day.

Most of these Arabic words in English came in through other languages, mostly French, Italian and Spanish, where similar looking and sounding cognate words are common among them. For example, the word for coffee is caffè in Italian and café in Spanish and French. Also, there are many words of Arabic origin in modern Spanish, which come from the Arab presence in Iberia which ended in 1492. A few common, if random, examples are zanahoria, carrot; albahaca, basil; durazno, peach; izquierda, left. (Read more about these words here.)

The moral of this story is that among the peoples of the earth we are closer to each other than we normally realize, and the factors that unite us may be hidden but they are strong.

The word “magazine” is a good example of how a word’s meaning can evolve while the word migrates over a wide area and over a long time. The Italian word for a warehouse or storehouse, magazzino, comes from the Arabic makhazin, and was first recorded in Italian in the 14th century. From Italian it entered French as magasin, where today it means a shop. It is recorded in English as a storehouse in the late 16th century. Its English meaning as a periodical publication is first recorded in January of 1731, with the appearance of the first edition of “The Gentlemen’s Magazine” in London.

The moral of this story is that among the peoples of the earth we are closer to each other than we normally realize, and the factors that unite us may be hidden but they are strong. Remember that the next time you are drinking a coffee, eating an artichoke, sitting in an alcove or wearing a cotton shirt. Salaam.

Here are some of the most frequently used Arabic words in English:

gentlemen's magazine

This is the first time the word “magazine” was used in English for a periodical publication with a variety of content. The building in the illustration is “St. John’s Gate” in London, which is where the magazine was printed.

Military terms:
admiral, from amir al-bahr, commander of the sea, أميرال
arsenal, from dar al-sina’ah, a house of manufacturing.

Products of commerce:
amber, from anbar,
cotton, from qutn, قطن
henna, from h’enna’, الحناء
jar, from jarrah, a large ceramic vase, جرة
tariff, from ta’rif, notification, تعريفة.

camel, from jamal, جمل
gazelle, from ghazal, غزال
giraffe, from zaraafa زرافة

Apart from Arabic names for Middle-Eastern foods, like tabouleh and hummus, there are many modern English words of Arabic origin for common foods:

These are plant foods:
alfalfa, from al fasfasa, the forage plant;
apricot, from al burquq;
artichoke, from al kharshuf;
coffee, from qahwah; قهوة
carob, from kharrubah; خروب
jasmine, from yasmin; ياسمين
saffron, from zafraan; زعفران
spinach, from isfanakh;
tamarind, from tamr hindi (date of India);
tangerine, from tanja, the name of the city of Tangiers.

These are recipies:
candy, from quand;
sherbet, from sharbah or sharabat; شربات
syrup, from sharab;

These words were themselves borrowed into Arabic from other languages:

elixir, from al iksir, from Greek,
lemon, from limun, from Persian, ليمون
orange, from naranj, from Sanskrit,
sugar, from sukkar, from Sanskrit. السكر

They all have cognates in the Romance languages too.

The Arabic scientific culture of the Middle Ages gave us many words which are still used in most of the modern western languages. The terms alchemy and chemistry, both come from the Arabic word for chemistry, which is al kimia, which is sometimes seen translated as “the art of transformation.” كيمياء

alcohol, from al kuhl, كحول
alembic, from al ambik (from Greek),
alkaline, from al qualiy, قلوي
algebra, from al jebr, meaning “reintegration, putting together,” علم الجبر
algorithm, from al Khowa-razmi, the name of a great mathematician, خوارزمية
azimuth, from as-sumut, “the paths,” السمت
nadir, from nadir as-samt, “opposite of zenith,”
zenith, from samt, although via a copying error, someone wrote “ni” instead of “m” and the result was “senit” which became zenith, in English and many other languages as well, through astronomy.
zero and cipher, both from sifr, empty. صفر

There are also many Arabic names of stars such as Aldebaran and Betelgeuse.

Some other common words:
alcove, from al qobbah,
assassin, from hashshaa-shin, literally “hashish eaters,”
carafe, from gharraaf,
genie, from jinni, “spirit,” الجني