Polish a Word: Unexpected Words that Come from Arabic

I have had the great honour, over the last year or so, to have been a regular guest on the ABC Radio Adelaide Jules Schiller Drive show. Jules is a keen wordsmith and a bit of a larrikin, hence the title of his linguistics segment: Polish a Word.

This week, Jules wanted to talk about Arabic and its contribution to English. Being one of the world’s main languages, Arabic has influenced many others and English is no exception. There are the obvious contenders, such as falafelhummusbaba ganoush and tahini, but some of the other Arabic-derived words may come as a surprise. For instance, did you know that candyorange, lemon and artichoke have Arabic origins too?

A clue to a few of these words is the syllable al-. This is the definite article in Arabic (e.g. Al Jazeera – “the island” or Al Qaeda – “the base”). So we get:

algebra (the reunion of broken parts),

algorithm (from the surname of the mathematician who introduced sophisticated maths to the West),

alcohol ( the fine powder produced by the process of sublimation), 

alkali (burnt ashes) and

alchemy (going all the way back to “that which is poured out”).

Our entire numbering system is based on Arabic numerals and the concept of zero was introduced through Arabic notation. It is closely linked to the word cipher.

Sticking with the numerical theme, tariff (“inventory of fees to be paid”) and average (“damaged goods”) are also in the Arabic-derived category.

That mathematical influence also reached English terms for measurement by the stars. We have zenithnadir and the gorgeous azimuth all from Arabic terms.

Fashion and fabric owes many of its terms to Arabic, such as damask, gauze, macramé, mohair, muslin, cotton and even sash. You can read about all of these in a magazine (makzan – “storehouse”) while sitting on a sofa (suffah – “bench of stone or wood”) drinking coffee (qahwah – possibly originally meaning “wine”) with some sugar in it (you guessed it, sugar is Arabic-derived too). If sofas aren’t your thing, you can always sit around on a large cushion called al-matrah, which gave us mattress.

Giraffegazelle and safari can be traced back to Arabic, and possibly even camel, which some say comes from jamala, meaning “to bear”.

Three surprises for me were admiral (from amir – “military commander”, also emir and so Emirates), ghoul (which I thought was related to ghost and ghastly but actually is an Arabic word for an evil, corpse-eating, grave-robbing spirit) and lastly checkmate, a derivative of shah mat, literally meaning “the king has died”.

Shukran, Jules!

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *