10 Words You Didn't Know Were Arabic Words

by robinjamespatrickbloor on June 2, 2009

As the Roman Empire died, itEponymous Laws (Relating to IT). Read more ... » came apart in the middle, splitting itself and also the Christian Church between East and West. The border of the two halves ran between what are now Croatia and Bosnia Herzegovina. Roman Emperor Constantine was the unwitting architect of this division because he founded Constantinople as an alternative capital to Rome, at a place called Byzantium. The city was well-positioned on trade routes and in a highly defensible situation. The Western half of the Roman Empire collapsed first, when Rome was taken by the Huns. They deliberately destroyed the aqueducts, making it impossible for Rome to remain a city of a million people.

The Eastern half of the Roman Empire was gradually eaten up by the rise of Islam, although it was never completely overwhelmed until Sultan Mehmet II captured Constantinople in 1453 and renamed it Istanbul (which, believe it or not, means “downtown”).

In the intervening period between the fall of Rome in the 6th century and the fall of Constantinople almost a thousand years later, the Arabic Islamic culture flowered. Its influence would probably have expanded much further were it not for two events:

  1. The first was the very early schism in Islam between the Sunnis and the Shiites, which had the two sides fighting amongst themselves rather than forging empires.
  2. The second was the Mongol invasion from the East, which laid waste to all the Islamic cities along the Silk Road and smashed the Abbasid caliphate.

Nevertheless, traces of that once supreme Islamic culture can be found in our language in words that few of us would ever suspect derived from Arabic. Here are 10 such words:

1. Check: The word “check” has multiple meanings all of them coming from the game of chess and the act, in that game, of threatening the king, or checking the king. When you check the king you limit its movements. So the word “check” came also to mean a ticket or token used to check against loss or theft. So we have the checks (or cheques in the UK) that we write against our bank accounts. The Chancellor of the Exchequer, in the UK, is the Minister of Finance, and the term “exchequer” derives from the Anglo-French10 French Swear Words You Don't Know. Read more ... » word “escheker” which was a cloth divided into squares in the manner of a chess board, which was used for reckoning revenue amounts. All of this comes from the medieval Latin “scaccus” which in turn comes from the Arabic “shah” (ultimately Persian10 Words You Didn't Know Were Persian Words. Read more ... » in origin), which means king.  The word chess comes from the French échecs, which has the same origin, as does the game of checkers, in which the word “check” is never used.

2. Admiral: There are lots of Arabic words for ‘leader’ indicating kinds and ranks. Caliph literally means “successor” – i.e. successor to Mohammed – and hence implies both a civil and religious leader, who is a  representative of Allah on earth. It is a little like the European idea of a King that rules by divine right. Sultan simply means sovereign. A vizier is nothing more than a high official in a Muslim government (the word means public servant) and a pasha is similar but in a military position. A sheikh is normally the leader of a tribe (or family). The word literally means “old man”.  An imam generally refers to a religious leader, but specifically means the leader of a mosque. A mullah is also the leader of a mosque, but the word has the connotation of “master” or “learned”.  An emir (amir in Arabic) is a ruler or commander. The amir-ar-rahl is the chief of transport, which on the seas means head of the navy, and that’s where the word “admiral” comes from.

3. Magazine: The use of the word magazine, referring to a periodic publication, comes from the word magazine meaning military store. For obvious reasons, military stores used to keep lists of what they contained and printed them on a regular basis. That’s how the word for the published magazine evolved, conceived probably to mean ‘storehouse of information.’ It’s also where the word for a magazine, meaning a container holding cartridges or bullets, came from. However the use of the original word magazine, as a military store, faded away. We are now more likely to refer to a military store as an arsenal, although arsenal originally had the meaning of the place where the weapons were manufactured. Both these words; magazine and arsenal come from Arabic. Magazine comes from the Arabic makhazin, which means storehouse and arsenal comes from dar as-sina’ah which means factory. In Arabaic, neither word specifically implies the making or storing of weapons.

Pages: 1 2 3

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: