Ancient Arabic Words You Don’t Know You’re Using

Arabian delights

English is like a big Mediterranean spread, with tons of bratwurst and beer, croissants, Nicoise salads, and chocolate soufflés. In other words, it’s made up of primarily Latin, Germanic, and French roots. This makes for a rich language to grace the palette. But, there are additional languages, usually undetectable, that add zest to the banquet. Peppered throughout the English language are Arabic roots, enhancing English with a spicy warmth.

Today’s meal is all about the Arabian delights that make up English; these words are so common, their original flavor is barely discernible; without them, though, English would be awfully bland.

Alcohol

Although English would certainly have found another term for the substance, alcohol is a word drinkers wouldn’t know what to do without. It’s widely agreed that the liquid and the lexicon were brought from the Arab world to Europe in the 1100s.

There are two possibilities for the word’s origins: In one theory, alcohol traces to al-kuhl (think “kohl”), a word for a fine chemical powder used as an antiseptic (like a kind of ethanol) and as eyeliner (Cleopatra, the originator of the cat-eye). Another theory suggests it derives from al-ghawl, “spirit” or “demon” (which is where the English word ghoul comes from). This second theory might be more likely: English describes alcoholic beverages as spirits. Also, having a hangover is demonic.

Candy

No alcohol? No candy? People might be a little healthier but much less happy had these Arabian delights not pleasured our palettes, linguistic and otherwise.

In the late 1200s, candy meant “crystallized sugar.” The word comes from the Arabic qandi, which itself traces back to Persian, Sanskrit, and even Dravidian terms meaning “cane sugar” and “to harden, or condense”; by the 13th century, these two linguistic meanings melted and crystallized together.

 

Check and checkmate

The earliest meaning of check was related to the game of chess; a check was (and is) a move that puts the opponent’s king in peril. Chess originated in India around 500 AD, spread to Persia, and was then discovered by conquering Arabs.

The Persian and Arabic word for “king” is shah. A player wins by putting the shah in jeopardy, leaving it unable to move, at which point: shah mat, “the king is dead” (or for a less dramatic version, “the king is left helpless”). And, shah mat turned into “checkmate” today.

Coffee

Think of Turkish coffee, the thick unfiltered preparation of this caffeinated brew, and you’re getting close to the origins of the word coffee.

Coffee ventured into Turkey, but it wasn’t born there. Originating in Ethiopia, the beverage passed through the Middle East (first introduced in Yemen) in the 1400s, where it was named qahwah. The Arabic word derives from a term meaning “to lack hunger”; qahwah was first used in reference to a dark wine that helped curb one’s appetite.

Cotton

The word cotton ties to the Egyptian Arabic qutn, which further links to an ancient term for “flax” or “linen.” While Egyptian cotton is now the utmost standard of quality, some researchers think cotton was too rare in ancient times (or didn’t exist yet), which is why Ancient Egyptians made extensive use of linen and flax instead—and they might have called qutn.

Whatever the case, Egyptian cotton (the real kind) has only gained in quality and popularity over the millennia. Today, cotton is one of Egypt’s leading exports. And, if you sleep betwixt a-bazillion thread-count Egyptian-cotton sheets, we're guessing you're thankful for the Arabic addition.

Mummy

Recalling embalmed Egyptian pharaohs will clue you in that mummy (not the British word for “mother”) hails from the Middle East. As with check (shah) earlier, mummy has Arabic and Persian parents: mūmiya was an Arabic and Persian word that meant both “embalmed corpse” and “bitumen,” the sticky tar-like substance used to preserve the corpse.

Preparing a mummy was a multi-step process (kind of like prepping the Thanksgiving turkey): organs were removed after carefully purifying the body with wine and spices; the corpse was stuffed, soaked in natron salts for 40 days, restuffed, covered with protective amulets, and wrapped in layers of linen soaked in tree resin, beeswax, and bitumen (basically asphalt). Bake in an arid desert pyramid at 120° F for eternity.

Soda

Back in the day, a patron at the corner drugstore could hop on the stool and order caffeinated cocaine with a splash of lithium and a twist of lime. All in the name of curing the ol’ headache, indigestion, or "failure to launch," wink, wink.

Shocking as it is today, soda first fizzed as a medicinal remedy. Although the connection is disputed, the word might have bubbled up from the Arabic suda, meaning “splitting headache.” The Medieval Latin sodamum transformed the painful Arabic noun into a “palliative treatment for a headache.”

Sofa

Arabs knew how to lounge centuries before Sealy and La-Z-Boy. While lacking in soy-based polyfoam and flexolator spring suspension, the Arabic suffah (“bench of stone or wood”) was the initial prototype that evolved into the comfy tush-cush it is today.

In the 1620s, the Turkish transformed the bench into an entire raised section of a room, covered with soft cushions and plush rugs. About a century later, the “long-bench” idea came back, only this time it was stuffed with comfortable cushions (more closely resembling today’s sofa). There lies the pivotal milestone in humanity’s collective journey to the land of “ahhhhs.”

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