Does English have any words of Arabic origin?

Does English have any words of Arabic origin?

Yasamin writes, "I have heard English has taken lots of words from different languages. Does English have any words that come from Arabic?"

Hi Yasamin,

It's true that English has taken words from many different languages. We call these 'borrowings' (although this term is slightly misleading as we're not giving the words back). In the 18th century the author Daniel Defoe described our language as 'Your Roman-Saxon-Danish-Norman English'. He could have gone further and added Indian, Chinese, Greek, Hebrew, Sanskrit, American, Arabic and many more languages which have influenced English.

There are quite a few words of Arabic origin that are easy to spot in English because they retain the Arabic definite article (al): alkali, alchemy, almanac. Henry Hitchings in his book, The Secret Life of Words, writes that alcohol is related to kohl the black powder used as a cosmetic in the Middle East; algorithm comes from algorism, which is a corruption of the final part of the name of a ninth-century mathematician, Muhammad ibu Musa al-Khwarizmi; admiral comes from amiir al-bahr meaning 'commander of the sea'.

The first English contact with the Middle East was through trade so some our words for foods, colours and payment come from Arabic (some through French as this was the international language of trade): Foods - saffron (French - safran from Arabic - za'faran), sugar (sukkar), syrup (French - sirop from Arabic sharab), elixir (al-iksir), orange (naranj), lime (limah), apricot (al-burquq), endive (hindab), artichoke (al-kharshuf); Colours - crimson (qirmizi), scarlet (siqillat meaning 'fine cloth'), azure (al-lazaward), henna ( hinna meaning 'small thorny tree'); Payment - cheque (sakk), tariff (ta'rif meaning 'notification, fees to be paid), average (awariyah meaning 'damaged goods').

Along with giving us scientific concepts, Arabic has given us words in chemistry (borax), mathematics (zero, zenith, nadir) and furnishings (sofa, mattress). We also have the words hazard (from French hazard 'game of chance played with dice', possibly from Spanish azar 'an unfortunate card or throw at dice' from Arabic al-zahr meaning 'the die') and assassin (hashshashin).

Melvyn Bragg in his book The Adventure of English notes that the term checkmate in chess can be traced to shah mat, meaning 'the king is dead'.

A lot of these words came into Middle English. More recently there have been new additions, mostly to talk about Islam. Although mosque dates from the 16th century, we now have burka, niqab, hijab, imam, jihad, fatwa, Ramadan, Eid.

Your name, Yasamin, gives us the English Jasmine.

Sources: The Adventure of English by Melvyn Bragg, The Stories of English by David Crystal, The Secret Life of Words by Henry Hitchings, The Etymologicon by Mark Forsyth, the online etymology dictionary.

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