The Arabic Roots of 10 English Words

Did you realize you speak some Arabic? 

An estimated 175 million native Arabic speakers make it the sixth most-spoken language. As we draw connections between environmental actions in the east and west, let’s look at how some commonalities in language are shared by these cultures.

It’s natural that, over time, some words slide across linguistic boundaries, particularly into modern Castilian Spanish given Moorish rule in Spain from 711 to 1492.

But here are ten Arabic words that infiltrated English.  Current events render some instantly recognizable, but others will surely surprise.

 1.   Ghoul – The الغول (ghul) comes by way of Arabic folklore, specifically mentioned in “One Thousand and One Arabian Nights”.  This desert-dwelling shape-shifter feasts on the dead, with a particular appetite for children.  Just in time for Halloween, “ghoulish” describes a creepy fascination with the macabre.

 2.   Genie – The الجن (jinn) is also a player in “One Thousand and One Arabian Nights.” In the Middle East, genies are thought to emerge from smokeless fires: they enjoy free will and can be horribly bad or Disney-fied sweet.  They can influence human behavior and be obligated to grant wishes.

 3.   Mujahedeen – مجهدين (mujahedeen) are those who bear arms in defense of the faith. Its positive connotation in the 1980s (when the USA supported Afghani freedom-fighters battling Soviet communists) later morphed to connote any Islamist fighters who commit terror in the name of faith.

 4.   Jihad – جهد (ja-ha-da) stems from an original meaning of “making an effort” or “struggle”, particularly in regard to religious rightful action: jihad appears 41 times in the Qur’an.  Modern (Western) interpretation is darker, usually relating to sanctioned opposition to a non-Islamic practice, institution or individual.

 5.   Admiral – أمير البحر (amir-al-bahr) translates to “prince of the sea” and is used in English military parlance to describe highest ranking Navy officers.

 6.   Algebra – الجبر grows from a root that means “he set (a broken bone)”.  It makes a conceptual leap to describe setting two sides of an equation into equilibrium.  The specific mathematics of algebra was codified by 9th Century Persian mathematician Muḥammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi.

 7.   Algorithm – الخوارزمية also comes from al-Khowarizmi, alleged to be a variation on the mathematician’s name, and describing a procedure for solving mathematical problems.

 8.   Ream – رزمة means “parcel” in Arabic and, in English, a pack of paper sheets.

 9.   Hazard – الزهر (al-zarh) means “dice”, which was adopted by the Spanish as “azar” meaning “risk” (recall that Arabs ruled Spain for almost 800 years). The dangerous connotation remains strong.

10.   Alcohol – كهل (kohl) is finely powdered antimony used as eye makeup throughout the Middle East (and by Keith Richards). Riffing on its meaning of fineness and subtlety, Arab alchemists gave the name of al-kuhl to any powder obtained by sublimation (transformation of a solid into vapor, and the reverse process).  Not a stretch to see how it came to be used for other products of distillation.

This is far from scholarly analysis.  Basic info came off a much-copied and anonymously authored “fun facts” sheet circulating at my daughter’s high school, but a quick Google search shows most of the etymology to check out, Insha’Allah.

Image of Arabic to English words by Shutterstock



2 thoughts on “The Arabic Roots of 10 English Words”

  1. There’s alot more examples in Spanish too – this is just the tip of the iceberg!

  2. layla says:

    i like this 🙂 there are many more words in english with arabic roots. im pretty sure orange is also derived from arabic..

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