Everyday English Words With Ancient Arabic Roots

Arabian delights

English is like a big Mediterranean spread, with tons of bratwurst and beer, croissants, niçoise salad, and chocolate soufflés. In other words, it’s made up of so many words with roots in Germanic and Romance languages, many Latin and its daughter, French.

But, there are many additional languages that add zest to the banquet. Peppered throughout the English language, for instance, are Arabic roots, enhancing English with a spicy warmth.

Today’s lexical meal is all about the surprising Arabian delights in English. English would be awfully bland without them.

alcohol

Alcohol is a word the English language wouldn't know what to do without on Fridays at 5pm.

The word is recorded in English in the 16th century, but it didn't refer to anything you might imbibe during happy hour. It originally referred to "powdered antinomy," which was used as eye makeup in the Middle East. Cleopatra, anyone?

It comes from the Arabic al-kuhl, a term for various substances used as a kind of proto-eyeliner. We can thank alchemists, and all the distillation of substances they did, for helping shift this word from makeup to adult beverages.

Alcohol, specifically for intoxicating distilled spirits, takes off in English in the 1800s.

candy

No alcohol without Arabic? No ... candy?! Well, at least not the words. People might be a little healthier but much less happy had these Arabian delights not pleasured our palates, linguistic and otherwise.

In the late 1200s, English borrowed candy from the French sucre candi, a kind of "sugar candy." French candi in turn comes from the the Arabic qandi, "cane sugar." The road doesn't stop there, as qandi has connections to Persian and Sanskrit.

coffee

That's right, the name of this life-giving elixir we also owe to Arabic.

Originating in Ethiopia, coffee passed through the Middle East in the 1400s, called qahwah in Arabic. Some etymologists think qahwah begins as a term for a kind of ... wine.

Qahwah became kahve in Turkish, and trade brought it into European languages (like the Italian caffè), recorded in English in the 1500–1600s.

soda

Another hard-to-imagine-life-without English word that has been connected to Arabic roots.

Soda (pop) takes its name from flavored drinks made with soda water, whose carbonation originally came from sodium bicarbonate. The history of the words and substances are complicated, but the original sense of soda was of an alkaline substance obtained from marshy saltwort plants.

Soda comes from medieval Latin, which got the word from the Arabic suwwadah, apparently naming a kind of saltwort plant. Some have argued connected soda to the Arabic suda, a "headache remedy." That might be too caffeinated, as it were, an explanation. 

check and checkmate

The oldest senses of check in English are related to the game of chess, where checking places an opponent's king under direct attack. Yes, even a money check you write goes back to this sense.

Chess is believed to originate in India in the 500s, and from there it spread to the Middle East. The Persian and Arabic word (the two languages historically influenced each other) for "king" is shah.

A player wins chess by leaving the king unable to move or be defended, which marks checkmate. Checkmate comes from Arabic and Persian shat mat, or "the king is dead."

Incredible, huh?

cotton

What would we be wearing without Arabic? Not (the word) cotton.

Via Romance languages, the word cotton goes back to the Arabic qutn. It's recorded in English in the 14th century. Hundreds of years later, and the word cotton really hasn't ... shrunk ... since.

mummy

Recalling embalmed Egyptian pharaohs will clue you in that mummy (not a British children's word for “mother”) hails from the Middle East.

Mummy has Arabic and Persian parents: mumiya was an Arabic word that could refer a "mummy" but literally "bitumen," a resinous substance used for medicine and in embalming.

But when mummy first appeared in English in the 1400s, it referred to a medicinal substance ... prepared from mummy flesh. Now, that's frightening!

sofa

Middle Easterners knew how to lounge centuries before the La-Z-Boy. While it didn't have a cupholder and couldn't recline, the Arabic suffah (“platform used as a seat”) was the initial prototype that evolved into the comfy tush-cush it is today.

These platforms were historically covered with carpets and cushions. Now that's relaxing.

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