ENGLISH ENRICHED BY CENTURIES OF BORROWED ARABIC
[By Dr. Mohamed Elmasry] - Oct 19, 2007
For 1000 years, Arabic was the primary international language of commerce,
scholarship and politics, much as English is in today's world. In fact,
over the centuries English adopted many words that were either borrowed
directly from Arabic, or were absorbed indirectly through other languages,
Even today, Arabic still accounts for the greatest number of Eastern
elements in English. The lists of examples that follow are only a brief
sampling of the many more words available; perhaps some will surprise you!
No computer, nuclear plant or microchip design could have been possible
without the words and concepts we know as algorithm, algebra, and zero -
all of which come from Arabic.
The names of many musical instruments -- like lute and guitar - as well as
a number of technical performance terms and styles, are also from Arabic
Many names of familiar animals, plants, spices, herbs and drinks began as
Arabic nouns: saffron, henna, camphor, cotton, apricot, lemon, lime,
orange, tamarind, lilac, sherry, mango, coffee, artichoke, spinach,
jasmine, ginger, tulip, lotus, shrub, giraffe, gazelle, cobra, zebra,
If you have ever taken a chemistry course, the word chemistry itself
originates with Arabic, as well as nitro, alkali, alcohol, calibre,
In your household and daily life, you might easily run into Arabic words
that are so common we never give them a second thought: shampoo, sofa,
cable, atlas, magazine, pie, pajama, bungalow, mattress, sack, khaki,
candy, caramel, jar, sherbet, sugar, syrup, cinnamon, ribs, silk, cheque,
And, as you might expect, Arabic is very present in slightly more exotic or
emphatic English words and proper names: tycoon, carat, chess, checkmate,
Sahara, almanac, rum, musk, sesame, tariff, cashmere, mummy, coral,
sapphire, jubilee, jargon, thug, Satan, fake, jungle, alchemy, zenith,
safari, talc, tartar, zircon, chiffon, amber, Bedouin, Ariel.
In military vocabulary, frequently-used terms like hazard, admiral, arsenal
and assassin all owe their use to Arabic.
But reference books devoted to tracing the English words borrowed from
Arabic are rare. Most were written some time ago and do not include
contemporary scholarship or changes in our language. The most recent is
more than three decades old -- Arabic Contributions to the English
Vocabulary, by James Peters and Habeeb Salloum (1973). Two other useful,
but dated, titles are: A History of Foreign Words in English, by Mary S.
Serjeantson (1935) and Arabic Words in English, by Walt Taylor (1933).
Words are much like organic living creatures whose character and meanings
evolve over time and circumstance. Those Arabic words that made it into
English must have had a fascinating history, much of which has been lost
over the centuries. It makes one wonder; Who used the original Arabic words
and what were they like? How did these words first come to be spoken by
non-Arabs? How many variations did they go through before appearing in
English dictionaries? Why are some much easier to trace back to their
Arabic roots than others? Linguists have answered some of these questions
but there is still much more to be known. Here is a project worthy of far
greater attention. Any takers?
For more information on Islamic Heritage please visit:
[Dr. Mohamed Elmasry is national president of the Canadian Islamic
Congress. He can be reached at