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10 English Words You Didn’t Know Came From Arabic

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10 English Words You Didn’t Know Came From Arabic

Dictionary. Photo courtesy of Aaron Burden.

Arabic is one of the oldest languages in the world, dating back to approximately 512 BCE, with 310 million native speakers worldwide as of 2016. While some consider that the language has been slowly dying in recent years, especially in countries such as the United Arab Emirates, its inspiration into other languages lives on in words we unknowingly use everyday, especially in the English language.

1. Alcohol
According to the Oxford English dictionary, the word Alcohol originates from the Arabic world al-kuḥl ‘the kohl’, which in early use referred to powders, specifically kohl, and especially those obtained by sublimation; later ‘a distilled or rectified spirit’ in the mid 17th century.

2. Magazine

A woman reading a magazine in the 1950s.

The word magazine originally meant warehouse or place for storing goods in the 1580s, which originated from the Arabic makhazin, plural of makhzan “storehouse”, from khazana “to store up.” According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the original sense of the word is now almost obsolete.

3. Ghoul

Ghoul, meaning a legendary evil being that robs graves and feeds on corpses, is according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary of Arabic origin, coming from ghūl, which comes from ghāla, meaning “to seize”.

4. Sofa

The english word sofa stems from the Arabic world suffah, which means “a bench of stone or wood; a couch”, according to the Online Etymology Dictionary.

5. Candy

The Oxford English dictionary cites that the word candy comes from a combination of the Arabic sukkar ‘sugar’ + qandī ‘candied’.

6. Checkmate

The word checkmate is originally the Arabic word shah mat “the king died”, which according to some etymologysts is a misinterpretation of the Persian mat “be astonished” as mata “to die,” mat “he is dead.”
7. Caravan

The word Caravan was picked up during the Crusades from Arabic qairawan which was also influenced from the Persian karwan, meaning “group of desert travelers”, as told by the Online Etymology Dictionary.

8. Coffee

Credit: Rayan Tours

Native to the region, the word coffee comes from the Arabic qahwah “coffee,” which the Online Etymology Dictionary cites Arab etymologists connected to a word meaning “wine.” However, there is also speculation that the word stems from the Kaffa region of Ethiopia, a home of the plant, where coffee is called būno which was borrowed into Arabic as bunn “raw coffee”.

9. Saffron

The spice saffron earned its name from the Arabic az-za’faran, which is of unknown origin. The Online Etymology Dictionary adds that the Russian shafran’ is also from Arabic.

10. Lemon & Lime

The words lemon and lime come from the Arabic laimun and lima, which according to the Online Etymology Dictionary were brought from India to the Levant by the Arabs before they were brought to English.

Special thanks to Professor Hanan Kholoussy whose lecture inspired this article.

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Arts & Culture Reporter. Writer and multidisciplinary artist with a passion for podcasting and theatre. Pre-pandemic, can be spotted getting work done from a Cairo coffee shop, train in Delhi or a New York subway. Intra-pandemic, works at a sunny window with lots of iced coffee.

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