Arabic’s Lasting Influence on the English Language

Wednesday, August 103 min read

Primarily due to the cultural influences that traveled along trading routes, Arabic kingdoms had a great impact on Europe from around 700 CE through the Middle Ages. Sometimes Arabs borrowed words from Spanish, Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and others, but many of the English words for things that were traded with the Arabic kingdoms have an origin in their language. Some of these words still start with the Arabic definite article al. Here are a few common words English speakers have borrowed from Arabic.


The wordalcohol” appeared in English in the 1540s, first meaning “fine powder produced by sublimation,” rather than the contemporary usage of a distilled spirit. It came from the Latin alcohol, “powdered ore of antimony,” from the Arabic al-kahul, or “kohl,” the fine metallic powder used to darken the eyelids. This came from the Arabic kahala, “to stain, paint.” Since the cosmetic was produced by an extraction process from a mineral, European chemists began to refer to anything involving extraction or distillation as “alcohol” by the 1670s. The sense of “intoxicating ingredient in strong liquor” appeared in 1753 as “alcohol of wine,” and it quickly became the primary usage of “alcohol.”


Candy emerged as an English word in the late 13th century, meaning “crystallized sugar.” It came from the Old French çucre candy, “sugar candy,” which the French borrowed from the Arabic qand, meaning “cane sugar.” This originally came from the Sanskrit khanda, meaning “piece of sugar,” which was adopted into Arabic via the Persian language. In British English, “candy” is specifically boiled sugar made with colorful stripes, and “sweets” is used for what Americans call “candy” in general.


The explanation of how the word came about might be as confusing as the subject to an eighth-grade algebra student. It appeared in English in the 1550s to describe a type of “formal mathematics; the analysis of equations; the art of reasoning about quantitative relations by the aid of a compact and highly systemized notation,” from the Arabic al-mukhtasar fi hisab al-jabr wa al-muqabala, which translates to “the compendium of calculation by restoring and balancing.” This was the title of a ninth-century treatise on equations written by Baghdad mathematician Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi. The key word in this phrase is al-jabr, which describes “a reunion of broken parts,” and this mathematical concept was introduced for the first time in al-Khwarizmi’s treatise.

Around the 15th century in Europe, “algebra” was also used to describe bone-setting, a type of re-unification likely picked up by Arab medical men working in Spain.


Magazine appeared in English in the 1580s, meaning “warehouse, a place for storing goods, especially military equipment.” English took it from the Italian magazzino, who borrowed from the Arabic makhazin, “storehouse.” While it still has militaristic connotations, its meaning as a “periodical journal containing miscellaneous writings,” essentially being a “storehouse” of information, first came about with the publication of Gentleman’s Magazine in 1731.


The word for sleeping on cushions is an Arabic invention: al-matrah, or “large cushion or rug for sleeping or lying on.” Before it evolved to “mattress” in modern English (15th century), it appeared in English as “materas” around 1300, from the Old French materas, from the Italian materasso, tracing back to the original Arabic word with a few Medieval Latin stops along the way.


Safari” is a Swahili word meaning “expedition,” which is how it became associated with African tourism, but that word came from the Arabic safar, meaning “journey.” It was adopted into the English language as a foreign word in 1858, before becoming more accepted as an English word by the end of the century.


Checkmate came into English in the mid-14th century as a chess term for when the king is in check and cannot escape it. This came from the Old French eschec mat, which is from the Arabic shah mat, “the king died.” However, it’s said to be a misinterpretation of the Persian mat (“to be astonished”) as mata (“to die”). Therefore, if the translation is supposed to be from the Persian, it would literally mean “the king is left helpless, the king is stumped” (which still works in a chess game).


Sequin emerged in the 1610s as the name of an Italian or Turkish gold coin, from the Italian zecchino, which was the name of a gold coin minted by the Venetian Republic. This came from Italian zecca, “a mint,” which came from the Arabic sikka, “a minting die,” which by extension could mean “coined money, coinage.” It didn’t become a fashion word meaning “ornamental disc or spangle” until 1852.

Featured credit image: Leonid Andronov/ iStock

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