Most people recognize Ancient Greek and Latin as the primary donors to the English language. However, some of the most ancient words in English actually trace back to Ancient Egypt.
Distinct from the contemporary Egyptian Arabic spoken today, Ancient Egyptian is a unique Afro-Asiatic language that doesn’t really share similarities with other languages in the family (like Arabic, Hebrew, or Berber). Its 5,000 year-old history generally comprises five stages, and the words that have trickled into English derive from these different time periods.
How Ancient Egyptian words made their way into English also boggles the mind. While we don’t know specifics, we can surmise that, given the region’s history of rule by conquering civilizations, like Greece (Alexander the Great), Rome (Ptolemy and Marc Antony), and—much later—France (Napoleon Bonaparte), Ancient Egyptian words entered English as a result of contact between Egyptians and native speakers from those regions.
It probably isn’t surprising that pharaoh is an Ancient Egyptian word. After all, it makes sense that this term would be used to describe the king living in that particular culture at that time. Originally, pharaoh (par-‘o) meant “Great House,” and was a term for the palace of the king before it came to represent the king himself. So, pharaoh is unabashedly Ancient Egyptian. But, to up the shock factor, we’re focusing this listicle on some of the everyday English words people wouldn’t guess in a thousand-and-one Arabian-nights come from Ancient Egypt.
The Bangles might want to think about a reunion because you’re about to talk like an (Ancient) Egyptian!
The next time you grab your favorite stick of spearmint, take time to connect with your Ancient Egyptian ancestors, who chewed qmy or qemi. You can still see the phonological resemblance after thousands of years! The g in English is simply q’s voiced counterpart.
Translated as “gum” or “resin,” qmy came from tree sap, a meaning that actually relates to gum’s earliest appearance in English, when gum originally referred to “a viscous secretion of some trees and shrubs…”
Ancient Egyptians chewed qmy on its own and also used the sap as a flavoring agent in food. King Tut’s great-grandparents were buried in a tomb filled with, among other gifts for the afterlife, beef ribs covered in pistachio “gum”—or qmy resin from a pistachio-like tree. The stuff was expensive and had to be imported so very likely, qmy was only available to powerful pharaohs and the wealthy who could afford it. Now, gum is one of the cheapest ways to masticate!
Think of the gorgeous ebony keys on a piano, or the title of a popular magazine, or even someone you may know named Ebony. Deriving from the Ancient Egyptian hbny, ebony originally described wood from the beautiful ebony tree, as it still does today. The Ancient Egyptian word might even trace further back to another African language.
Ebony is a hardwood tree originally from Ethiopia and was probably one of the earliest trade-commodities in the world. Like the gum of the pistachio tree, ebony was imported by the wealthiest classes in Ancient Egypt, who used it for furnishings and decorative carvings. Because it’s so rare, ebony is still considered an elite wood today.
And, don’t think Ebony wasn’t a name in Ancient Egypt—King Thutmose III named his pet puppy Hbny and had him painted beside him in his tomb. Aw, little doggo.
Incredible visionaries that they were, the Egyptian gods must have known thousands of years ago what everyone learned for certain in 1982: “Ebony and ivory live together in perfect harmony.” Of course, this is a quote from the song “Ebony and Ivory” by Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder. Perfect harmony on a keyboard, and in real life, ebony and ivory even share word origins—and with the pharaohs, no less.
Ivory comes from the Ancient Egyptian words ab, “elephant,” and abu, “elephant’s tooth.” Ivory was another important and expensive import-commodity in Ancient Egypt, brought in on the Nile from Nubia. The material appeared everywhere, in carvings, artworks, furniture, cosmetic containers, game pieces, and arrow tips.
Adobe now signifies one of the biggest brand names in computer software, a total contrast to the word’s semantic origins in humble earthen-clay. And, surprise-surprise, the name for the humble brick doesn’t originate from a Pueblo Native-American language, as many might think, but from the Ancient Egyptian word djebe or djobe, meaning “mud brick.” The word morphed into Arabic as at-tub (“the brick”) and was adopted into Spanish as adobe in the 8th century, when Arabs from northern Africa crossed over into Spain. Spanish settlers introduced adobe bricks to Pueblo Indians in America in the 1500s. (Pueblo, by the way, is also a Spanish word, meaning “village.”)
Moors, Arabs, and Spaniards carried on a building tradition established by the Ancient Egyptians, who built vaulted djobe constructions, remains of which still survive in some cases. The djobe vaults were built above ground in homes and stores, and in underground tombs. Many of them were used as storerooms for goods, grains, and offerings.
When you think of the names Susan or Susanna, what comes to mind? Susan B. Anthony? Susan Lucci (for soap fans)? “Oh, Susannah?” The 4th-most popular name in 1950s America?
Instead of little Suz on a Frosted Flakes commercial, think of an exotic flower floating along the Nile next to, oh, King Tut in his pleasure boat. Yes, the name Susan derives from the Ancient Egyptian word sSn (seshen) meaning “lotus” or “water lily.” The name was adopted into Hebrew as Shoshan (“lily-like,” also “joy of life”) and originally written as Shoshanna. In Old Testament apocrypha Shoshanna, or Susanna, was a beautiful and devout woman who proved her faith in Christ.
Other biblical names with Ancient Egyptian origins include Phineas (from pa-nehesi, “the Nubian”), and Moses (from either ms, “child,” or msi, “to give birth to; to create”).
You may not be able to see ammonia, but you can definitely smell its pungent odor. Used in everything from cleaning solutions (ironically) to plastics and refrigeration, the colorless gas gets its name from the Ancient Egyptian god Amun (changed to Ammon by the Greeks). Worshipers of Amun performed spiritual rites with ammonia in the god’s honor.
Why ancient peoples thought a god would appreciate a substance naturally derived from human and animal waste … and organic decaying matter is beyond us. But, how fitting that the stinky gas goes by a name inspired by a god who appreciated all creatures, great and small, living or dead, from head to tail.
In Ancient Egyptian, the name Amun (or imn) means “the Hidden (One)”—much like the SBD gas.
The word oasis has always inspired calm and replenishment. Today, it can refer to any mental or physical space in which to relax and recharge. In its original sense, oasis also refers to a fertile location in the arid desert. Few and far between, these watering holes are like sparkling jewels to desert travelers. Or, to use the original Ancient Egyptian word, like wehe, “cauldrons” in the sand.
The wehes or oases formed natural cavities in the earth that Ancient Egyptians perceptively likened to deep vessels used to prepare life-giving sustenance and magical elixirs. The blend of nourishment and enchantment underlying oasis’ origins makes the word and what it stands for all the more rejuvenating!
Remember Susanna, the water-lily floating down the Nile with King Tut in his pleasure boat? Who knows, maybe the pharaoh named his boat “Susanna” (like Thutmose called his pup “Ebony”).
What’s less farfetched is that Tut probably would have called his boat a barge (though, technically, in Ancient Egyptian, the word was bar or bari). Bars, or barges, were key modes of transport on the ancient highway of the Nile. They transported royalty, peasants, food and commodities, and thousands of pounds of rock to build temples, obelisks, palaces, and pyramids.
On its etymological voyage, bar became barca in Latin, and then barque (“small boat”) in French—the French formation, by the way, is the ancestor of the English verb embark.
Some of our other most used words come from other languages you wouldn’t have expected: Check out these everyday English words we adopted from the Yiddish language.