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10 words you didn’t know came from Arabic

By November 20, 2019Language, News

Arabic is a beautiful language and considered one of the most ancient and diverse.

Spoken by around 400 million people, it is one of the most used languages in the world. It has well documented influences on Spanish  since the time of the Moors, but less well known is how much the English language has also adopted Arabic words.

The words weren’t directly borrowed but were filtered through Latin and many different European languages, changing form and occasionally meaning, since the adoption from Arabic.

1. Mattress

Back in the time of the Crusades- running a religious war throughout Eastern Asia and Europe- cultures clashed, mingled, and absorbed some of the other’s ideas and language. One particularly pleasant things we adopted from the Arabic culture was the use of the mattress- actually large soft cushions. Our word ‘mattress’ is taken from the Arabic word “matrah”- a place where cushions were thrown down- which in turn came from the word “taraha”- to throw. From there it was absorbed by Latin as materacium or materatium, and it evolved from there.

2. Magazine

The word ‘magazine’ originally means “storehouse” and is still used as such today. In the military a ‘magazine’ is a storage place for explosives. English borrowed the word from the French (who still use magasin to refer to a store), who in turn got it from Italian, magazzino, which came from Arabic, makzin.

3. Cotton

The is a slightly confusing one… The cotton plant is not native to the Arabic-speaking lands but is actually native to India and Central and South America but the word ‘cotton’ came from the Arabic, “qutn”.

4. Syrup

Syrups are usually made by dissolving sugar in water or by reducing naturally sweet juices such as cane juice or maple sap. The original word for syrup is “sharab”, which refers to a beverage: wine, fruit juice, or something sweeter.

5. Candy

English got the word for candy from the Arabic ‘qand’ referring to the crystallised juice of sugar cane. The Arabic word evolved from Persian, which in turn got it from Sanskrit.

6. Oranges

Originally from South and East Asia, oranges were known in Sanskrit as ‘naranga’. This evolved into the Persian ‘narang’, which became the Arabic ‘naranj’. Arabic traders brought oranges to Spain, which led to the Spanish ‘naranja’. Old French adopted the word to ‘un norenge’, then Modern French as ‘une orenge’.

7. Coffee

The English adopted this word from the Italian “caffè”, which in turn had been taken from the Turkish, “kahve”. The Turkish took it from the Arabic, “qahwah”.

8. Sugar

Sugar was brought to Western Europeans -first the Italians and French, and then the English- and they adopted the Arabic word “sukkar”, which had originally come from the Sanskrit, “sharkara”.

9. Alcohol

The word alcohol comes from Arabic but, funnily enough, the thing itself doesn’t. In the original Arabic, al-kuhl means “the kohl,” which is cosmetic powder for the eyes made from stibnite using an extraction technique. European chemists adopted the meaning and applied it to anything produced by extraction or distillation and eventually the meaning was solely applied to the liquid.

10. Zero

Fibonacci had learned about ‘zero’ from Arabic culture in North Africa, where he grew up and he introduced the concept to the Europeans in the early 1200s. He took the Arabic word ‘sifr,’ meaning “empty” or “nothing,” and Latinized it as zephyrum. That got edited over time to the Italian “zero”. The written number also comes from the Arabic numerals, although they look different today than they did back then.

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