Some lists make me upset (why don’t we have an etymological dictionary of Arabic yet?)

About a year ago, there was a Dutch blogpost from going around on Facebook; I remember looking at it at the time and getting a bit frustrated with some things, but at the time I didn’t have this blog so..yeah. I don’t mean to be pedant, but there are some things that I want to point out. Sure, many of the words they mention are genuine Arabic, but a considerable number of them were borrowed through Arabic and are, in fact, not actually Arabic. Several of these words have very doubtful or different etymologies as well. Let’s look at some of the worst offenders:

            vizier (18): Yes, well, I guess this term for “minister” is well-known from the Arabic sources, but it was actually borrowed into Arabic from Middle Persian, as was already pointed out by the famous orientalist Paul de Lagarde in his Übersicht über die im Aramäischen, Arabischen, und Hebräischen übliche Bildung der Nomina, in 1889. In the Middle Persian texts, it’s supposed to mean something like “judge; arbitrator“, which semantically fits much better than the Arabic “carrier [of the Prince’s duties]”.

            caravan (3): Same case as above, although possibly not even borrowed through Arabic. Klein’s Etymological Dictionary of English states that the term was borrowed during the crusades, so it might have actually been taken directly from Persian. Attested in Middle Persian as well (kʾlwʾn).

            luit (36): Obviously the word for lute is derived from Arabic al-ʿūd, which is fine. But then the author goes on to say that the English word wood (as in forest) is derived from Arabic, which seems a bit..odd, considering that we have cognates of wood in Old Norse (although interestingly, German Walt and Dutch woud are not related!). So this is just really stupid. I’m not really sure how that kind of mistake would (hah) creep in there.

            douane (46): Pretty much the same story as vizier, except that its origin is much cooler! The word dīwān is derived from Persian, already attested in Middle Persian, apparently going all the way back to the Sumerian word dub “clay tablet”, borrowed into Old Persian through Akkadian. François de Blois wrote about this in the Enyclopaedia Iranica, which is available online for free. Check it out. The term for the supportless bed somehow came into being due to the association of this object with the rooms they were placed in.

            oasis (22): Already attested in Latin, which borrowed it from Greek, in the exact same form. The Greeks got it from Demotic wḥj, which itself reflects a development from Egyptian. The Arab word was probably also directly taken from Demotic.

            mumm (16): The Arabic mūmiyāʾ actually reflects the Persian noun mumyā, ‘asphalt’, attested in a variety of Iranian languages as well as Armenian, and derived for the word for wax, mūm. Although it’s been suggested that the Iranian form was borrowed from the Semitic word for “water” (mā(y)?).

            koffie (2): Coffee. I’ve thought about this, and I really don’t think the form is Arabic for several reasons. Firstly, coffee is not indigenuous to the Arabian Peninsula, but was imported there from Ethiopia by Late Antiquity (5th-6th centuries). Although it’s held that the Arabic qahwa originally meant wine (which it probably did), it seems much more likely that the term was derived from the name of the city Kaffa in Ethiopia (compare also the drink port, fortified Portuguese wine). When it was borrowed into Arabic, they probably associated the drink with what they already knew, and so forth. So through Arabic,  not from Arabic.

            koepel (37): I’ve saved the absolute worst for last. Koepel, (“dome”) they say, is derived from Arabic al-qubba. I have two problems with this assertion: firstly, what happened to the Arabic definite article al-, which was maintained in virtually all other borrowings from Arabic (almanak, elixir, algebra, arsenal, and so forth) and secondly, where did the final l come from? The term, as it turns out, has a perfectly fine Latin etymology, as the fine people of the Meerten’s Institute point out: either the word was borrowed through French coupole (“small barrel; dome”), or directly from Italian cupola, reflecting a Late Latin diminutive of the noun cūpa, “barrel; cup”.

Some more words that really aren’t of Arabic origin are: suiker (sugar, eventually from Sanskrit), kabel (cable, actually Indoeuropean; how would Arabic be borrowed with [k]?), gitaar (guitar, probably from Greek), and masker (masque, Latin or Occitan), and then there are the significant amount of words they included that are not actually Arabic, which they state by their own admission (checkmate, orange, maffia, giraffe, andives, gazelle, azure).

I understand if people think I’m just complaining, but it’s really not hard to look stuff like this up. I also understand that fifty is a nice number to write a list about, but at least eightteen of them cannot really be considered Arabic in origin. It’s fine that there are many words, in various European languages, that were derived either directly or indirectly from Arabic, but sometimes I get the feeling that we tend to treat it as something of a magical language from which everything is derived. The underlying message usually is “look at all the things the Arabs have given us”, which is also OK, it just shouldn’t stand in the way of reality.


Also see:


Klein’s Etymological Dictionary of the English Language

MacKenzie’s Dictionary of Pahlavi



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