English words from the Arab-Muslim world

English words from the Arab-Muslim world

By Paul Williams 

While much of the Western world was in the Dark  Ages, Arabic-Muslim culture was making enormous contributions to art, philosophy, science, and medicine. From medieval times merchants brought  Arabic words to the West along with new goods and materials, including those household staples coffee and sugar. And I just wanted to share with you this fascinating book it’s called ‘The  Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins’, and this is a dictionary of derivations of words in English.  

And there’s a lovely section here  entitled ‘Who put the sugar in your coffee?’  Basically talking about English words that come from Arabic culture and I just wanted to share it with you. Some of this would doubtless be familiar to you but I’ve learned one or two things I didn’t know, and some of the things that will shock Americans about their  English language.

So it begins: ‘Coffee derives from Arabic ‘qahwa’,  although the word entered English in the late 16th  century via Turkish ‘kahveh’. Muslims had taken wild plants from Ethiopia and cultivated them in Arabia,  from where the drink spread throughout the Arabic world and Turkey, becoming particularly popular in the international metropolis of Constantinople.  
The word sugar has been in English much longer than coffee coming into the language in the 13th  century by way of Old French and Italian from the  Arabic ‘sukkar’. Candy, the North American term for ‘sweets’, this is what Americans call their sweeties, is another Arabic word – oh no! – from ‘qandi’  ‘clarified’, or crystallized by repeated boiling. So this quintessentially American word is an Arab word from the Muslim world. Oh dear!  

Another important commodity was cotton, or in  Arabic ‘qutn’, known in Britain by the 14th century.  More exotic was mohair, which in Arabic was ‘mukayyar’.  literally ‘choice, select’ and saffron, or za’faran.  A sequin was originally a Venetian gold coin whose name came from Arabic ‘sikka’, a die for making coins.  

Trade often involves customs and tariffs, so it  is no surprise that the word tariff itself is from Arabic, and you might have guessed that actually, as tariff actually sounds Arabic.   The Arabic word ‘al-‘ means ‘the’, which is reflected in the spellings of common English words:  albatross, alcohol, alcove and algebra, and also  in many proper names.

They don’t mention it but  ‘admiral’ is a well – it’s not ‘al’ but admiral is another word that is Arabic in origin. Al-Qaeda means literally ‘the base’ – a reference to the training camp or base in Afghanistan used by the mujahideen or guerrillas fighting the Russian occupiers, from which the terrorist group developed.  

Islam and Muslim are both from the same word, ‘aslama’,  meaning to submit or surrender, or to submit to God,  and both were first recorded in English in the early 17th century. Now that really surprised me  I wasn’t aware that back in the 17th century in the 1650s 1660s they actually had the words Islam and Muslim! And ayatollah is a Shiite religious leader in Iran which obviously we know.  

The word has been used since around 1950 in  English and many people only became aware of it when Ayatollah Khomeini, who died in 1989,  led the Iranian revolution in 1979.
A much more established word in English is imam, the leader of prayers in a mosque, known since the 17th century.  The word’s root is ‘amma’ to lead the way.  I didn’t know that!

Now, this is very interesting here, the word that separates the Muslim world from the Western world and that is the word Fatwa. Fatwa was in use in English as early as the 17th century which surprised me but it was an obscure and unfamiliar word until 1989, until guess what happened when it suddenly gained new and widespread currency when Ayatollah Khomeini issued his famous fatwa sentencing the British writer Salman Rushdie to death for publishing The Satanic Verses, a novel regarded by many Muslims as blasphemous. Fatwa is a generic term for any legal decision made by an Islamic religious authority but because of the particular way in which the English-speaking world became familiar with it the term is sometimes wrongly thought to refer to a death sentence.  That was certainly my understanding before I  actually learned the true meaning of the word. 

 Another word often misunderstood by non-muslims in the west is Jihad or as we say “Jihad”. It is generally taken to mean ‘war by Muslims against non-believers’, yet this is only a  small part of the word’s meaning. In Arabic jihad literally means effort (which it does)  and expresses the idea of struggle on behalf of  God and Islam of which war is but one small part.   The concept is sometimes divided into lesser jihad,  or struggle against unbelievers or oppressors,  and greater jihad, a person’s spiritual struggle  against sin.’ Or any social struggle. You know it can be a struggle to improve the health of a country, that could be a jihad as well.

So that  I think is really interesting. So the headline ‘who put the sugar in your coffee’?  it was the Muslims. Oh no!  

The Muslims were involved, very very interesting!  But some of these words which I now think of in a completely different way from Westerners,  words like fatwa and jihad are still thought of in their wrong sense by many many in the West and that contributes obviously to fear of Muslims and islamophobia. So I do recommend this lovely book, Dictionary of Word Origins, published by  Oxford University Press. Absolutely fascinating!  If you love language, you love words, you can spend hours pouring over this as I do regularly.

And that’s it – hope you enjoyed that. Till next time.

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