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11 English Words That Make More Sense When You Know Their Arabic Roots

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If you look too closely, some English vocabulary just ceases to be logical. You use fanfare all your life, for instance, and then you stop and think: Wait—what does fan have to do with fare? Is that like bus fare? Or a thoroughfare? And what’s a safflower, if saffron comes from a flower too?

I happened to solve a lot of these moments of etymological crisis just by studying Arabic (as detailed in my book All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World), which is at the root of some seemingly English-through-and-through words. Granted, the Arabic is sometimes hard to recognize, usually because it has been filtered through French or Spanish. But trust me, it’s there—and it just might answer some of your most nagging linguistic questions.

1. CHECKMATE

This is one of those mysterious compound words that almost seems normal. You’re putting a check on your opponent’s king on the chessboard. Sure, smartie—then where does the mating come in?

In fact, checkmate came to English via the Arabic phrase shah mat, “the king is dead,” declared at the end of a chess game. Full credit, though, really goes to the Persians, who introduced chess to the Arabs, along with the winning phrase. In old Farsi, the phrase meant something like “the king is helpless”; mat already meant “died” in Arabic, so the phrase turned more, shall we say, decisive.

2. JUMPER

British English is weird. Big fuzzy sweaters don’t help you jump. And I admit I always just assumed those smocklike dress things were called jumpers because, well, they were so easy to put on, it was like jumping into them.

Totally irrelevant, as it happens. The word derives from jubba, a long tunic or outer robe. French borrowed the word first, and English sailors took it to mean a loose all-weather smock. And only after that did it cross the sea again to become a slip-on dress.

3. SAFFLOWER

This yellow-tinted but almost completely tasteless flower is often sold as a cheap substitute for wildly expensive saffron (and unscrupulous spice sellers will capitalize on the similar name). But the two words are as unrelated as the plants themselves. Saffron, the stamens of a crocus, comes from Arabic za’faran. Back in the super-wealthy days of the Islamic Empire, there was also a verb, za’fara, meaning to dye fabric yellow with saffron—fancy!

Safflower, on the other hand, is a scrubby little plant related to thistles. The word comes originally from the Arabic for yellow, asfar. English borrowed it via French, which made the Arabic a bit more familiar by squishing –fleur (flower) on the end to make saffleur.

4. FANFARE

Admit it—you’ve always pictured a parade with big fans. Or is that just me?

The most immediate ancestor of this odd compound word for a blare of trumpets is either Spanish (fanfarrón) or French (fanfaron), in which those words mean someone who brags or behaves with bluster or bravado.

But those words are likely taken from Arabic, either from the verb farfara, to shake or flutter or spin, or more literally, from anfar, bugles or trumpets (singular nafeer).

5. MAGAZINE

How you can you be sitting there on the sofa reading a magazine, while way out at sea, a captain is checking the weapons stored in his ship’s magazine? Or over at the shooting range, someone is sliding a magazine into a gun? How did this one word come to mean such different things?

Magazine comes from French magasin, which in turn comes from the Arabic makhazeen, meaning "storehouses" (singular makhzan). Only in English did people expand the meaning of magazine to include stores of information, as well as the usual stores of weapons and other military supplies.

6. MACRAMÉ

The accent mark on the end gives this word a French vibe, but since macramée is meaningless, it’s time to look elsewhere.

In Arabic, miqrama is an embroidered covering, now usually a bedspread, though in the past it was a piece of clothing as well. Like a lot of clothing and luxury vocabulary, the word made its way to English via Italian.

7. MOHAIR

Ah, spring—the season when shepherds shear their flocks of mos!

Alas, this is untrue. There is no animal called a mo, from which hair is cut and spun into delicate wool yarn. Mohair is really the Arabic adjective mukhayyir, choice or select—that is, the finest fluffy wool from the underbellies of cute Angora goats.

8. MUMMY

Fortunately, your mother has nothing to do with this one. Our English word mummy comes from Arabic moomiya (also used in Persian), a mineral substance used for medicine and embalming. By extension, the ancient Egyptians’ preserved corpses became moomiyat, or mummies.

And—fun fact!—as recently as the 18th century, Europeans believed that powdered scraps of mummies had medicinal properties when eaten. The original yummy mummy?

9. MUSLIN

Mixing up muslin, the fine cotton fabric, and Muslim is a common typo or mispronunciation, but there’s no linguistic connection. Muslin was a specialty of the city of Mosul in present-day Iraq; the word comes from the Arabic adjective for the city, mawsili.

10. POPINJAY

This old-fashioned word for a strutting, vain person started out in English as the word for parrot. It was taken from French papegai or Spanish papagayo, which came from Arabic babagha’, a green parrot.

Jays got in the picture only via Romance languages. Like safflower saffleur, popinjay began as a mash-up, starting with a strange Arabic word for parrot, babagha’, and ending with a familiar Romance-language one, gai or gayo, meaning bird. No surprise, then, that English spelled it –jay, another familiar bird word.

11. ARTICHOKE

Artichokes are delicious, but slightly sinister—those little spikes on the leaves, and that possibly deadly fine fluff that covers the vegetable’s heart. Don’t tell me I was the only one who thought you could choke on it.

I needn’t have worried. Artichoke is a mangling of Spanish alcochofa, in turn from Arabic al-khurshoof. But more recently, some dialects of Arabic borrowed the word back from English (or French, artichaut) and started calling it ardi shawki, “land thorn.”

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Here's the Right Way to Pronounce Kitchenware Brand Le Creuset

If you were never quite sure how to pronounce the name of beloved French kitchenware brand Le Creuset, don't fret: For the longest time, southern chef, author, and PBS personality Vivian Howard wasn't sure either.

In this video from Le Creuset, shared by Food & Wine, Howard prepares to sear some meat in her bright orange Le Creuset pot and explains, "For the longest time I had such a crush on them but I could never verbalize it because I didn’t know how to say it and I was so afraid of sounding like a big old redneck." Listen closely as she demonstrates the official, Le Creuset-endorsed pronunciation at 0:51.

Le Creuset is known for its colorful, cast-iron cookware, which is revered by pro chefs and home cooks everywhere. The company first introduced their durable pots to the world in 1925. Especially popular are their Dutch ovens, which are thick cast-iron pots that have been around since the 18th century and are used for slow-cooking dishes like roasts, stews, and casseroles.

[h/t Food & Wine]

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The Early 20th Century Society That Tried to Make English Spelling More Intuitive
George Bernard Shaw, a member of the Simplified Spelling Soesiety
George Bernard Shaw, a member of the Simplified Spelling Soesiety
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The English language is notorious for complex spelling rules—and the many words that break them. We all know i comes before e, except, of course, in certain weird words like, well, weird. We pronounce the letter i like eye if the word ends in an e—except in words like give. Unsurprisingly, even native English speakers get fed up with the inanity of the language’s complicated spelling conventions, and there have been several pushes to replace them with something a little more intuitive over the centuries, as The Public Domain Review highlights.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the London-based Simplified Speling Soesiety was one of the groups pushing for a more logical system of English spelling. Its journal, first published in 1912, refers to standard English spelling as "in sum waiz unreezonabl and retrograid.” So the group went about coming up with new ways to spell common words itself, hoping its alternate approach would catch on.

The Pioneer ov Simplified Speling contained a pronunciation guide, but many of its alternative spellings can be deciphered fairly easily. As long as you peruse carefully, that is. Reading through the publication feels like stumbling through an archaic text from hundreds of years ago, rather than something written during the 20th century.

A pronunciation guide from the 'Pioneer of Simplified Speling'
The Pioneer of Simplified Speling

Go ahead and wade into how the group, founded in 1908, explained its mission in the first edition of The Pioneer:

The aim ov the Soesiety nou iz tu plais befor the public cleer staitments ov the cais against the curent speling, tu sho hou seerius ar the consecwensez ov yuezing it, and hou much wood be gaind, if sum such sceem az that ov the Soesiety wer adopted.

Did you get all that?

The debut edition of the quirky journal, which you can read on the Internet Archive, includes not just the group’s mission statement and goals, but birthday congratulations to the Society’s founding president, aggregated updates about spelling in the news (like that in an interview, British chemist Sir William Ramsay mentioned a German child never making a spelling mistake), the announcement of the group’s annual meeting (at which members would submit new simplified spellings for discussion), and other minor spelling-related notes.

The whole thing is truly a treasure.

Fed-up readers and writers have been trying to wrangle English spelling conventions into something more manageable for essentially as long as there have been standardized spellings. Benjamin Franklin was a spelling reformer during his lifetime, as was Theodore Roosevelt. Soesiety member George Bernard Shaw went so far as to leave his estate in a trust dedicated to reforming the English alphabet when he died.

Though the spelling reformers of yore didn't find much mainstream acceptance for their ideas, there are still modern orthography obsessives who want to revamp the English spelling system to make it easier to learn. And they have a point: For English-speaking children, learning to read and write takes years longer than it does for kids learning to read in languages with easier spelling rules, like Finnish. Considering that one study of 7000 different English words found that 60 percent of them had irregularly used letters, it’s a wonder any of us English speakers have learned to read at all. If only the Simplified Speling Soesiety had gotten its way back in the early 1900s, maybe we would have an easier time of it.

[h/t The Public Domain Review]

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