Arabic Language Blog

English Words of Arabic Origin Posted by on Mar 8, 2010 in Arabic Language, Culture

Being a native Arabic speaker, one of the most difficult challenges I found when learning English was its lack of familiarity to anything I’ve known before. I could say the same about  learning Portuguese, my most recent undertaking since moving to Sao Paulo, Brazil. Although my task was made easier because I could draw upon my experiences of learning English. I imagine I’m not the only who thinks this way. Our lack of familiarity with a language can make learning it frustrating and intimidating. I do think that sometimes we are more familiar with things than we actually know, and our initial impressions are not entirely accurate.

Have you ever heard people conversing in Arabic? I think that those who have no or minimal exposure to it would find it intimidating and perhaps intriguing. Some common observations I would expect to hear are that it’s guttural, rough, and unlike anything they’ve heard. In reality it’s neither, but our reaction is heavily influenced by the languages we already know. To most English speakers, whose language is derived from Germanic, it’s certainly different than what they’re usually accustomed to. This is also true for speakers of romance languages.

Consider any of the romance languages used in Europe and parts of the Americas: Although they are very different, they share a relatively similar alphabet, and on many occasions similar vocabulary. This is not surprising given their common ancestry. In many instances we only need to change our pronunciation, or a letter or two, to arrive at the same word in one or two other languages. The English word “jar,” for example, has the French, Spanish, and Portuguese equivalents of (respectively) “Jarre,” “Jarra,” and “Jarro.” While noting the obvious differences we can also see the clear resemblances. Now consider the Arabic equivalent of the same word;  that is the word “جرة”. If you did not know already, “جرة” is transliterated as “jarra.” Phonetically it sounds similar to its English equivalent, and it’s almost identical to its Spanish, French, and Portuguese equivalents. In fact the origin of the word “jar” is Arabic, and it’s one of many hundreds of English words that share that heritage.

This one example is not meant to mitigate the vast differences between Arabic and European languages, but if we look closely we will find many similarities. As I mentioned earlier, the English language is strewn with words whose origin is Arabic: Alcohol, or “الكحول”; magazine, or *“ماغازين”; mascara, or “المسكرة” are just a few examples.

Incidentally, alcohol, or “الكحول” (al-ko’hool), was invented by an Arab chemist named Al-Kindi (أبو يوسف يعقوب إبن إسحاق الكندي, Abu Yoosef Ya’kub Is’haq al-Kindi). Or more precisely the chemical (another word of Arabic origin from “الكيميائية”, “al-keemya’eya”, derived from “الكيمياء”, “al-keemya’a”, which means “chemistry”) process to isolate distilled alcohol and ethanol was invented by Al-Kindi—next time you’re enjoying your vodka-tonic perhaps you could toast in his honour.

Some words of Arabic origin:

  1. Amber “العنبر”  (anbar)
  2. Crimson “قرمزي”  (karmazi)
  3. Elixir “إكسير” (ikseer)
  4. Carat “قيراط” (kirat)
  5. Cottom “القطن” (al-kutn)
  6. Sherbet “شربات” (sharabat)
  7. Tahini “الطحينة” (tahina)
  8. Chipher / zero “صفر” (sifr)
  9. Mask / mascara “المسكرة” (mascara)
  10. Alcohol “الكحول” (al-kohool)
  11. Hazard “زهر” (zahr)
  12. Caliber “قالب” (ka’leb)
  13. Jar “جرة” (jarra)
  14. Chemistry “الكيمياء” (al-keemya’a)

* A side note: While “magazine” is commonly used in English to describe printed publications, the origin of its Arabic equivalent “ماغازين”, (makhazeen), is obsolete. Today we use a similar word to describe a storehouse:  ”مخزن” (makhzan). Ironically, we have now adopted the English meaning of this word (magazine, as in a publication) even though its Arabic roots mean something entirely different.

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  1. Johnny:

    There are also words that come from English but are used differently. In Jordan & in Lebanon, probably other places.. if you look for Napkins (nabkins) you will find female products…

  2. Mohamad:

    Hey Johnny, that’s very true. Although in Lebanon it is more likely you’ll hear French words used more often than English ones. Lebanon was a French colony, whereas Jordan was a British colony. I’ll dedicate a post to the topic, though, now that you mentioned it.


  3. Pedro:

    Nice to know that you are learning Portuguese. It is indeed easier to learn it the “Brazilian” (“Brasil” is written with “s” in Portuguese) way than the “European” way, as we European Portuguese tend to close many sounds and swallow the end of the non acutely-accented words when we speak. It is not by chance that European Portuguese understand both Brazilian Portuguese and Spanish, but Brazilians sometimes have difficulties in understanding us, and most Spaniards don’t even try.
    Anyway, there is really a lot of Arabic-originated terms and expressions in Portuguese, so although this is a rather difficult language for non-natives to learn, you should find some familiarities from time to time 🙂
    And yes, I find the Arabic language much less difficult to learn than it seems when you first approach it 🙂

  4. Juan:

    Very interesting Mohamad,

    My native language is Spanish, we have literally hundreds of words from arabic origin, not to mention names of cities, places, rivers, etc.

    There is a lot of history behind our languages that we are not aware of.

    Let me add one more word to your list of common english words with arabic origin:

    “mirror”, I would say it comes from مرآة

    correct me please if I am wrong.

    And what about “coffee”? قَهْوَة
    Or even “tea”: شَايٌ (not sure if has arabic origin)

    I am sure we can give more examples: “algebra” is another example that just came to my mind. Post it here if you find more.


  5. Johnny:

    Pedro, a friend of mine told me that 10% of some of the south american countries have folks of Lebanese or Arab origin. I am not sure how accurate that is, but that would explain the word mixings eh?

  6. Pedro:

    Johnny, that may be true, I don’t know – however I would argue that most of the Arabic influence in Portuguese and Spanish languages stems from the Maure occupation of the southern part of the Iberian Peninsula during several centuries. I would say that Maure blood flows in many (mostly southern) Portuguese and Spanish citizens.

  7. Mohamad:

    Juan, great input. The words you gave are also originally Arabic. Johnny, what your friend has told you true. Many Lebanese immigrated to South America at the turn of last century. But I think the reason there are many Arabic words is less to do with immigration more to do with geographic proximity of the Arab world to Europe. For a few hundred years the Arabs also occupied parts of Europe.

  8. kyle:

    how do you say “just do it” in arabic?

    • aziza:

      @kyle One way of saying this is

  9. marggie:

    You will find many of Arabic origin in the Caribbean islands, especially in Dominican Republic and some parts of Cuba.

    My grandma’s last name is Abud and I have cousins on the other side of my family who are also Arab. Manyyy Arab immigrants. Sadly not many kept the language.

    Luckily, Dominican food is greatly influenced by Arabic cuisine. Any Dominican party you go to you will find Kibbeh(or Quipes as we say)and Tabbouleh(Or tipili, as we say in DR).

  10. Humdy:

    just do it = fuckut ef-ul thahlic*
    فقط افعل ذلك

    * According to the most accurate phonetics

    • aziza:

      @Humdy فَقَط اِفَعل ذَلِك

  11. Hani:

    All very interesting, but what did the word Makhazeen mean back when it was still used in Arabic. You said today a version of it is used, Makhzan, which means store house, but I would like to know what the original word meant