May 26, 2018

15 English words borrowed from Arabic

15 English words borrowed from Arabic

You have zero interest in algebra, so you grab some alcohol — or maybe a coffee with extra sugar — sit on the sofa or mattress, eat an orange or some candy, and read a magazine or surf the web with Safari and Adobe. And just like that, you’ve used a dozen words that came from Arabic.

Yes, thanks to the traffic of goods and culture around the Mediterranean throughout history, English has many common words that it got from Arabic. It didn’t borrow all of them directly; they mostly came filtered though Latin, Turkish, French, Spanish, German, and/or Italian, and have changed in form — and sometimes meaning — since they left Arabic. But our language has accepted all these imports, and they have assimilated well and been very useful.

1. Zero

The electronic device you’re reading this on wouldn’t exist without digital programming, which wouldn’t exist without the number 0 (zero), which — believe it or not — Europeans didn’t think of as a number until the Italian mathematician Fibonacci introduced it to them in the early 1200s. He learned it from Arabic culture in North Africa, where he grew up. He took the Arabic word sifr, meaning “empty” or “nothing,” and Latinized it as zephyrum. That got trimmed down a little bit over time to the Italian zero. Of course, along with the concept, he needed a way of writing it. Roman numerals didn’t have a zero (of course), and anyway they’re not good for doing decimal mathematics: It’s much more bother to work with XX times LXVII than with 20 times 67. So he borrowed numerals from Arabic, too — which is why typographers call our digits Arabic numerals. (The way they look in Arabic now is different from how they look for us now.)

2. Algebra

Zero and the numerals aren’t the only math that English owes to Arabic culture. Algebra comes from Arabic al-jabr, which refers to a reunion of broken parts, like setting a bone. A 9th-century Arabic treatise on math gave us the figurative use of the term. The author of the treatise was al-Khwarizmi, whose name has become another mathematical term: algorithm.

3. Adobe

Before it was a software company, adobe was — as it still is — a kind of sun-dried brick. We got the word from Spanish. But Spanish got it from Arabic. Much of Spain was under Muslim (“Moorish”) rule from the early 700s into the 1400s. One of the many things Spanish adopted from them was al-tub, “the brick,” which changed over time to adobe.

4. Safari

This word so strongly associated with expeditions in Africa came from an African word for “expedition”: the Swahili safari. But Swahili got it from the Arabic safar, or “journey.” These days Mac users go on Safari and never leave their sofas. It’s probably safer that way.

5. Sofa

Some of us sit on a sofa and some sit on a couch, but it’s the same piece of furniture. Those of us who call it a sofa are using a word we got from Turkish, which got it from the Arabic suffa, which refers to a raised platform with carpeting on it — which is a more Arabic place to sit than a couch. Read more 


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