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Issue 67   

January 3, 2000
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English words from Arabic

A friend recently asked us about a word that he only partially recalled.  It began with al- and was an archaic navigational term.   "Aha!", we said, "That sounds as if it could be an Arabic word."  So we ran a source-language query on the Oxford English Dictionary on CD-ROM (visit our Book Store if you'd like to compete).  Here are a few of the gems and surprises which this search uncovered.  [Note that many of the words begin with al-.  This is because al is Arabic for "a" or "the".]

English word English meaning Arabic origins
alcove A recess; especially if vaulted  al the + qobbah, "a vault, vaulted chamber"; from qubba, "vault".
alembic  1. A distillation apparatus

2. A brand of electric bass guitar

al-anbiq,  "a still"
alfalfa A variety of clover alfaçfaçah "the best fodder"
algebra 1. The surgical treatment of fractures

2. The department of mathematics which investigates the relations and properties of numbers by means of general symbols

al-jebr, "the reintegration or reunion of broken parts", from jabara, "to reunite"
Algol A star of the constellation Perseus al ghul, "the ghoul" (see also ghoul)

(originally algorism)

1. The Arabic, or decimal system of numeration; hence, arithmetic.

2. A computational process, or set of rules

al-Khowarazmi, (i.e. the native of Khwarazm), surname of the Arab mathematician Abu Ja'far Mohammed Ben Musa, who flourished early in the 9th century, and through the translation of whose work, on Algebra, the Arabic numerals became generally known in Europe.
Alhambra A palace in Granada, Spain al-hamra, "the red (house)"
alkali A class of chemical compounds al-qaliy, the "calcined ashes" of the plants Salsola and Salicornia, from qalay "to fry, roast in a pan"
amalgam a solution of a metal in mercury amal al-jam, "the operation of conjunction" or al-mojam, "a marriage union"
amber a fossil resin kanbar, "ambergris,"
arsenal 1. A dockyard.

2. An establishment for the manufacture or storage of weapons and ammunition.

The original is the Arab. dar aççinakah, "workshop, factory" (i.e. dar, "house, place of", al, "the", çinakah, "art, mechanical industry", from çanaka "to make, fabricate"
artichoke A vegetable (Cynara Scolymus), allied to the thistles al-kharshofa, "artichoke"
attar A perfume, flower essence atšar, "perfume, essence"
azimuth An arc of the heavens extending from the zenith to the horizon which it cuts at right angles as-sumut, i.e. as = al, "the" + sumut, plural of samt, "way, direction"
bint British servicemen's slang for "girl" bint, "daughter"
borax Biborate of soda (Na2B4O7) bauraq,  properly "natron", but also "borax"
cabob, kabob, kebab An oriental meat dish kabab
candy Crystalized sugar or a sweetmeat qandah, "candy".  (See also sugar)
cane The hollow jointed woody stem of various reeds qanah, "reed, cane"
carafe Glass water-bottle gharafa, "to draw, or lift, water"
caraway An herb (Carum Carui) al-karawiya, carroway
cassock A priestly vestment kazacand, a padded jerkin
cotton A plant-fiber based fabric al-qoton, "cotton"
crimson A red color qermazi, "crimson"
cumin A spice kammûn, "cumin"
drub To beat with a stick darb, "beating, a blow"
elixir A cure-all al-iksir, "an elixir"
ghoul An evil spirit ghul, from a verbal root meaning "to seize"
sugar A crystalline, sweet substance  sukkar, "sugar".  See also candy
talisman A stone, ring, or other object  to which are attributed occult powers tšilsam, "talisman"
tamarind The fruit of the tree Tamarindus indica tamr-hindi, i.e. "date of India"
tariff A list or scale of charges ta' rif, "definition", from tarafa, "to notify, make known" 
traffic The transportation of merchandise for the purpose of trade taraffaqa,  "to seek profit"
wisdom tooth The hindmost molar tooth adšrasu 'hšikmi (from dširs, "tooth", hšikm, "wisdom")
zero The arithmetical figure 0 çifr, "cipher, zero"

Oh yes, just in case anyone was wondering, we found our friend's word for him.  It was almucantar, "small circles of the sphere parallel to the horizon, cutting the meridian at equal distances; parallels of altitude."  OK, so we have strange friends...

AG00003_.gif (10348 bytes) Words to the Wise

Your Etymological Queries Answered

From Sally Bush:

In conversation I referred to a British subject as a Limey and my boss asked me "What's a Limey?"   After informing him I began to wonder about the origins of the word.  It's not a put-down as far as I am concerned, but I'd hate to offend any of my friends from the UK  if it is considered otherwise by the "Limeys".

If you suddenly succumbed to general debility of the body, extreme tenderness of the gums, foul breath, eruptions of the skin and pains in the limbs I imagine you would be a little worried.  You might Nice, juicy limes. even think that you had contracted one of the terrible viral infections that are currently making the rounds of the planet.  These symptoms, however, are what you can expect if you get no vitamin C in your diet.  The condition is called scurvy and, at one time, was common among sailors on long sea voyages who had to live on salted foods.

Long before vitamins were recognized as being essential to the diet, medical officers in the British navy noticed that even extreme cases of scurvy cleared up rapidly if the sufferer ate citrus fruits.  The Royal Navy therefore instituted the practice of carrying stocks of limes and giving each sailor a daily ration of lime-juice.  This resulted in British ships being called lime-juicers by U.S. sailors.  Over time, the scope of the term was extended to include the British sailors and, eventually, all Britons.

The word scurvy, like its older synonym scorbute, derives from Middle Low German schorbûk, "belly-burster" (MLG schoren, "to break, lacerate" + bûk, "belly") a graphic description of the final stage of the condition.  Any substance which counters scurvy is called an anti-scorbutic.  There is, for instance, an anti-scorbutic plant of the cabbage family called scurvy-grass (Cochlearia officinalis) and in former times people drank the anti-scorbutic tonic called scurvy-ale.  We now know that the reason the anti-scorbutics worked is that they all contain vitamin C.  Chemically, vitamin C is known as ascorbic acid which literally means "no-scurvy" acid.

Just to put your mind at rest, Limey is no longer considered offensive but, originally, it was intended as an insult.  Personally, we think that all those scurvy American sailors (with their foul breath and skin eruptions) were just jealous that the British sailors had no trouble getting dates.

From Jonathan Heinzen:

What is the etymology of widow's peak?

Peak is, essentially, the same word as pike and beak, all of which refer to something that has a projecting point.  In days of yore, widows wore a distinctive hood with a pointed piece in front, called a biquoquet.  By analogy, if a man's hairline recedes, leaving a peak in front, or if a man's or woman's hair grows into a point at the center of the hairline on the forehead, this is called a widow's peak.  Curiously, there is also another expression, a widow's lock, meaning a lock of hair (on a woman) which grows apart from the rest of her hair.  This is supposed to be an omen that she will be widowed early.

From Kimm Kiefer:

The word sallyport is used by law enforcement officers across the nation for the location in a jail facility to which arrested persons are dropped off.  Why?

We assume from your use of the term law enforcement officers (not police) and your spelling of jail (not gaol) that "the nation" of which you speak is the U.S.A. (this is the world-wide web, you know). 

A port is simply a doorway or gate, from the French port, "door" and originally from Latin portus, "a harbor" (a country's  harbors are, in a sense, its doorways).  Latin also has the verb salire, "to leap", which is the ancestor of our word sally, meaning an armed military excursion.

So, what's this got to do with jails?  Well, most medieval cities were built with substantial fortifications so that they could withstand a siege, but what if those within the city wanted to attack their besiegers?  There was a very real danger that the act of opening the gate to let soldiers out would also give the besiegers an opportunity to enter.  [Hang on, we're nearly there.]  The solution was to construct a sallyport,  a heavily fortified, double-gated portal.  The force of soldiers would enter the sallyport through its inner gate which would then be closed behind them.  When the outer gate was opened they would sally forth, then that gate would be closed.  When they returned, the opposite procedure was observed.

The sallyport used in jails is constructed similarly to its medieval namesake, with two strong gates enclosing a small inner area. 

From Donalyn:

I'm curious about the word cahoots, as in the expression "I'm in cahoots with her."  I've used this expression and everyone knows what I mean but we can't seem to find the origin of the word.  Can you?

Well, seeing that you've thrown down the gauntlet like that, we simply had to try but, for such a simple word, there is very little definite that we can say about its origin.  Many authorities cite a word for a small cabin, either the French cahute or the Dutch kajuit.  Thus, to be in cahoots with someone meant, literally, that they lived together in a confined space and implied close cooperation.  Alternatively, it could possibly come from the Latin cohort, "a body of infantry, one tenth of a legion", via the French word cohorte.

Surprisingly, the earliest recorded examples of the term have "in cahoot with".  Why it should have picked up a final S is unclear.  Also, we found one solitary example of cahoot as a verb: "They all agree to cahoot with their claims against Nicaragua and Costa Rica." - New York Herald, May 20 1857. 

From Janice Bryant:

Wow, I enjoy your site immensely. I have currently run out of books that interest me in the local and my personal library and find this site vastly entertaining as well as educational.  I was reading the archives and ran across 'nob' as meaning head, and wondered about its relationship with hobnob

No, it has nothing to do with heads but it's quite fascinating, nonetheless.

First we must look at the Old English words hab and nabHab is thought to be the present subjunctive form of have with nab (n- + hab) as its negative form.  Thus habbe ich, nabbe ich meant "whether I have or I have not".  Nowadays, hab and nab survive only in the dialects of Devon and West Somerset in the  phrases hab or nab, hab nab and habs-nabs.  As one might expect, these phrases all mean "get or lose, hit or miss, succeed or fail".

By Shakespeare's day the phrase hob, nob had progressed from its literal meaning of "to have or have not" to mean "give and take" and he used it in this sense in "Twelfth Night".  Another shift of meaning occurred around 1750 when hob or nob, hob a nob, or hob and nob came to refer to two persons drinking to each other.  To drink hob or nob (or hob a nob) meant to drink toasts to each other alternately or to take wine with each other with clinking of glasses. There is also an obscure noun, a hob-nob, which is a toast used when hobnobbing (although in Britain, Hobnob is a brand of cookie).

The next change of meaning came around a century later (c. 1850) when hobnob lost its specific reference to alcohol but retained its connotations of intimacy, good-fellowship and close companionship.

curmdgeon.GIF (1254 bytes) Curmudgeon's Corner

where Malcolm Tent proclaims that it is

definitely not definately

One of the most common spelling errors I see is this:  definately.  If you want to spell that word correctly, just remember that there is a finite way to spell definite.

Some other misspellings I see now and again seem to occur due to the loss of the "t" sound within words, especially  here in America.  For example, we Americans pronounce congratulations as congradjulations.  It's no wonder that many people spell the word c-o-n-g-r-a-d-u-l-a-t-i-o-n-s.  Similar pronunciation of the name of a facility called the Inter-Community Hospital resulted in it being spelled as Inner-Community Hospital.  It's a wonder that the word knight has survived with that spelling for so long (it was knyght in the 14th century - close enough), seeing as it isn't pronounced phonetically any longer!

Sez You...

From W. Russ Long:

Regarding the origin of "Xmas" mentioned in Issues 65 and 66, I thought you would be interested to know that the "San Fernando Valley Folklore Society's Urban Legends Reference Pages" identifies the X in Xmas as the symbol for Chi rather than the Christ cross. The specific web page is located at  They also disagree with your description of the origin of the insulting gesture of extending one's middle finger. You mention it in Issue 39  near the bottom (the topic was originally raised in Issue 25. Their discussion can be found at  Thought you'd be interested.

Thanks, W. (or, as we'd say in Texas, "Dubya").  In the case of the discussion you cite regarding "pluck yew", we see no disagreement between that discussion and ours.  As for the X in Xmas being a chi or a criss-cross (Christ's cross), we will, after having conducted further research, concede defeat: the X in Xmas is in fact a chi.  We blame excessive holiday merry-making for this error!

By the way, we're happy to see that you all made it to the year 2000.  Happy new year!

From Dick T.:

I have to agree with the sharp Ms. Dwyer's points about the unusual 99-year century. It is odd, indeed. Perhaps I am just too ignorant to understand why this century should be shorter than the last 19.  As to skinny-dip, you report that it was first put in writing in 1966. This seems very late to me. I'm sure I heard it at least 10 years earlier - and it seemed to be an established expression even then. Surely SOMEBODY wrote it down before the mid-60s.

Barb Dwyer says, "You're not ignorant.  Mass media has simply promulgated, quite successfully, a bit of misinformation.  However, we all know that everything in the media is true, so...  Are you free tonight, Dick?"

And we say, regarding skinny-dip, that it may well have appeared in print before 1966, but the first known occurrence in print dates from 1966.  If you can find an earlier example, drop us a line and we'll put you in touch with the powers that make a note of such things.

From Tony Lyons:

I've just seen a reference to brogue in Issue 50's Spotlight (Aug 99). According to Dineen's Irish - English dictionary, the word "brogue" comes from the Irish word barróg, which among other things, means a person with defective accentuation, such as somebody speaking a foreign language might have. So when we have a native Irish speaker using wrong or unconventional accents on English words, he could be said to speak with a barróg, or brogue.  I enjoy your website very much.

This is in fact one of those contentious word origins.  While it is widely suggested by Gaelic scholars, there is no evidence to support the notion that brogue comes from Irish barróg.   Most etymologists suggest that, if the word does come from brogue "shoe", the sense is one of "the speech of people (Celts) who wear brogues", as that type of shoe was worn mostly by Celts.  We're pleased to hear you enjoy the site!

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