Words at Play

8 Common Words from Arabic

Number 4 might scare you


Definition: a generalization of arithmetic in which letters representing numbers are combined according to the rules of arithmetic.

Anyone who has unpleasant memories of slogging through this branch of mathematics will be relieved to know that the pain you felt in trying to figure out the quadratic equation is mirrored in the word’s etymology – it comes from the Arabic al-jabr, which means "the bonesetting." It should be noted, however, that algebra did not literally have anything to do with broken bones, or with the setting of the same. Instead, it was probably chosen because this connotation of "reuniting" described the act of completing the square in a quadratic equation.

Definition: a clear liquid that has a strong smell, that is used in some medicines and other products, and that is the substance in liquors (such as beer, wine, or whiskey) that can make a person drunk.

Arabic has given the English language the words for two of our most beloved potables, coffee and alcohol. One of these comes from a word for a ground powder, and the other comes from a word for wine, but probably not the ones you think.

Coffee is from the Arabic qahwah (which can mean either "wine" or "coffee"), and alcohol is from al-kuhl, which referred to a powdered antimony used as an eye paint. In fact, when alcohol first appeared in English, it was used to describe powders such as kohl, and did not take on its current meaning until the 18th century.

Definition: a yellow citrus fruit that has a sour taste

Both of the fruits lemon and lime come from Arabic; the former is descended from the word laymūn and the latter from līm (there is another lime, which refers to a sticky substance formerly used to trap birds, which comes from Latin). Of the two fruits, only lemon has been lucky enough to pick up a range of disagreeable figurative meanings.

We have been calling things which turn out to be less desirable than we thought they’d be lemons for over a hundred years now. Similarly, that old expression "if life hands you lemons, make lemonade," has been inducing teeth-gnashing rage in most people who hear it since at least 1908, when a variant of it appeared in the New York Evening Telegram: “Never say die! If life hands you a lemon, adjust your rose colored glasses and start to selling pink lemonade."

Definition: a legendary evil being that robs graves and feeds on corpses.

The word ghoul, with its initial gh, looks to some like it might well have come from Old English (as did both ghost and ghastly, but it is definitely of Arabic origin; it comes from ghūl (which is itself from ghāla, meaning "to seize").

Ghoul initially was used to refer specifically to a legendary grave-robbing being, one who fed on corpses. It has since taken on the additional meaning of "one who shows morbid interest in things considered shocking or repulsive."

In addition to ghoul, Arabic has provided the English language with other words for supernatural beings, such as the afreet (a powerful evil demon, or monstrous giant in Arabic mythology), and the djinn.

Definition: a type of thin book with a paper cover that contains stories, essays, pictures, etc., and that is usually published every week or month.

It may seem confusing to some that the English word for a glossy, bound bunch of pages should have come from the Arabic word for a storehouse (makhzan), but it actually makes quite a bit of sense. Magazine had a number of meanings before it was used to refer to Elle, Rolling Stone, and Vogue; the earliest use of the word had the definition "a place where goods or supplies are stored." Following this warehouse sense, magazine took on additional meanings such as "a place where ammunition is stored," "a city viewed as a marketing center," and "a stock of provisions or goods."

In the early 18th century, people started using magazine to refer to a general-interest collection of writing, especially one that contained stories and was geared toward the public.

Definition: to check (a chess opponent's king) so that escape is impossible

Checkmate, the term beloved by chess grand masters and patzers alike, has been in use in English for a considerable length of time, with use dating back to Middle English. It comes from the Arabic shāh māt (which itself comes from Persian), meaning "the king is left unable to escape."

The English word check, with senses such as "a criterion" and "a condition of impeded progress," is also from the Arabic shāh. This word entered our language with a chess-related meaning, to indicate that the capture of an opponent’s king was imminent.

Definition: a lightweight implement that consists of a netting (as of nylon) stretched in a usually oval open frame with a handle attached and that is used for striking the ball or shuttlecock in various games (as tennis, racquets, or badminton).

There are many different meanings of the word racket in English, but they all come from two main origins, neither of which is related to each other. The name for the implement which one uses to hit a ball (or occasionally the ground, when frustrated enough) comes from the Arabic rusgh, meaning "wrist." The earliest meaning of this word was in reference to a game played with a ball and rackets, rather than to the racket itself.

The other senses of racket, which include, but are not limited to, "a confused, clattering noise," "a fraudulent scheme," and "an easy and lucrative means of livelihood," are thought to have appeared in English slightly after the word of Arabic origin. The etymology of this word is unknown, although it is thought to be of imitative origins.

Barrio
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Definition: a neighborhood in a city or town in the U.S. in which many people who speak Spanish live.

Sometimes words come to English directly from another language, and sometimes they come via a slightly more circuitous route. In some cases, the word in question will have become so firmly established in the in-between language that we just assume that it must have originated there. Such is the case with barrio, which, although it does come to English from Spanish, came to Spanish from the Arabic word barrī ("of the open country"). Barrio is one of a number of words which have traveled this same path, including arroz, olé (from the Arabic wa-llāh, from wa- and + allāh God), and adobe (from Arabic al-ṭūb, "the brick").

Barrio is used widely across the globe, to refer to a neighborhood in which a predominance of Spanish-speaking people live. In some places, it has negative socio-economic connotations. In many countries, however, barrio carries no negative meaning regarding economic class or status, and simply serves to refer to a specific municipal section or area.




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