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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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9 Sweet Old Words for Bitter Tastes and Taunts
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Whether you’re enjoying the sharp taste of an IPA or disliking some nasty words from a colleague, it’s hard not to talk about bitterness. But we could all use a few new—or old—terms for this all-too-common concept. So let’s dig into the history of English to find a few words fit to describe barbs and rhubarbs.

1. STOMACHOUS

Have you ever spoken with bile and gall? If so, you’ll understand why stomachous is also a word describing bitterness, especially bitter words and feelings. This is an angry word to describe spiteful outbursts that come when you’ve had a bellyful of something. In The Faerie Queen, Edmond Spencer used the term, describing those who, “With sterne lookes, and stomachous disdaine, Gaue signes of grudge and discontentment vaine." You can also say someone is “stomachously angry,” a level of anger requiring a handful of antacids.

2. WORMWOOD

Artemisia absinthium (wormwood) is the patron plant of bitterness, which has made wormwood synonymous with the concept. Since at least the 1500s, that has included wormwood being used as an adjective. Shakespeare used the term in this way: “Thy secret pleasure turnes to open shame ... Thy sugred tongue to bitter wormwood tast.” George Parsons Lathrop reinforced this meaning in 1895 via the bitterness of regret, describing “the wormwood memories of wrongs in the past.” Unsurprisingly, some beers are brewed with wormwood to add bitterness, like Storm Wormwood IPA.

3. BRINISH

The earliest uses of brinish are waterlogged, referring to saltiness of the sea. The term then shifted to tears and then more general bitterness. Samuel Hieron used it in his 1620 book Works: “These brinish inuectiues are vnsauory” [sic]. Nothing can ruin your day quite like brinish invective.

4. CRABBED

Crabby is a popular word for moods that are, shall we say, not reminiscent of puppies and rainbows. Crabbed has likewise been used to describe people in ways that aren’t flattering to the crab community. The Oxford English Dictionary’s etymological note is amusing: “The primary reference was to the crooked or wayward gait of the crustacean, and the contradictory, perverse, and fractious disposition which this expressed.” This led to a variety of meanings running the gamut from perverse to combative to irritable—so bitter fits right in. Since the 1400s, crabbed has sometimes referred to tastes and other things that are closer to a triple IPA than a chocolate cookie. OED examples of “crabbed supper” and “crabbed entertainment” both sound displeasing to the stomach.

5. ABSINTHIAN

This word, found in English since the 1600s, is mainly a literary term suggesting wormwood in its early uses; later, it started applying to the green alcohol that is bitter and often illegal. A 1635 couplet from poet Thomas Randolph sounds like sound dietary advice: “Best Physique then, when gall with sugar meets, Tempring Absinthian bitternesse with sweets.” A later use, from 1882 by poet Egbert Martin, makes a more spiritual recommendation: “Prayer can empty life's absinthian gall, Rest and peace and quiet wait its call.”

6. RODENT

Now here’s a bizarre, and rare, twist on a common word. Though we’re most familiar with rodents as the nasty rats digging through your garbage and the adorable hamsters spinning in a wheel, this term has occasionally been an adjective. Though later uses apply to corrosiveness and literal rodents, the earliest known example refers to bitterness. A medical example from 1633, referring to the bodily humors, shows how this odd term was used: “They offend in quality, being too hot, or too cold, or too sharp, and rodent.”

7. NIPPIT

The first uses of nippit, found in the 1500s, refer to scarcity, which may be because this is a variation of nipped. In the 1800s, the term spread to miserliness and narrow-mindedness, and from there to more general bitterness. OED examples describe “nippit words” and people who are “mean or nippit.”

8. SNELL

This marvelous word first referred to physical and mental quickness. A “snell remark” showed a quick wit. But that keenness spread to a different sort of sharpness: the severity or crispness of bitter weather. An 1822 use from Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine uses this sense: “The wintry air is snell and keen.”

9. TETRICAL

The Latinate term for bitterness and harshness of various sorts appears in José Francisco de Isla's 1772 book The History of the Famous Preacher Friar Gerund de Campazas, describing some non-sweet folks: "Some so tetrical, so cross-grained, and of so corrupt a taste." A similar meaning is shared by the also-rare terms tetric, tetricity, tetricious, and tetritude. Thankfully, there is no relation to the sweet game of Tetris.

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19 Old-Timey Ways to Call B.S.
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If you've been using the B.S. word a lot lately, it might be time to change things up. Look no further: We’ve partnered with the editors of the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) to bring you 19 old-timey ways to call B.S. from all over the United States.

1. FIDDLE ON A BROOMSTICK

Need to cry nonsense in Vermont? You could one-up fiddlesticks by saying, “Fiddle on a broomstick!” You could also say fiddle up a gum tree.

2. FAIRYDIDDLE

This Nebraska term is a variation of taradiddle, according to DARE, and might be influenced by “fairy tale.” Taradiddle meaning a lie or fib originated around 1796, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), and by 1970 also meant pretentious or empty talk.

3. FAHDOODLE

Another variation on an older word. Fa’doodle is British English from about 1670, according to the OED, while fahdoodle was recorded in New York as of the 1870s. Also related is the 19th century flapdoodle.

4. MALOLLY

“That’s a load of malolly!” you could say when you think somebody is full of it. Used in Georgia and Indiana. Variations include malollypop and molly.

5. GURRY

Other meanings for this Maryland saying for rubbish or nonsense include “diarrhea” from 16th century British English and “fish offal” from 19th century U.S. whaling lingo, according to the OED.

6. BULL DURHAM

This New York City euphemism is also a brand of tobacco. Other bullish yet delicate ways of saying B.S. include bullfeathers in Arkansas and bullcorn in Texas.

7. BUSHWA

This rather old-fashioned Northern term originated around 1920, says the OED. DARE says this probable euphemism for B.S. may also be influenced by the Canadian-French bois de vache, “buffalo dung,” or bois de cheval, “horse dung.”

8. AND 9. DONKEY DUST AND HEIFER DUST

Dust is a polite way of saying “manure.” Hence, donkey and heifer dust are literally manure from a donkey and heifer, and figuratively ways of saying bullshit without saying it. Donkey dust is a Massachusetts native while heifer dust is from the Ozarks.

10. BOTTLEWASH

Instead of “Hogwash!” you can also say, “Bottlewash!” What exactly is hogwash? The OED says it first referred to kitchen scraps used to feed pigs, then to any low quality alcohol, and then to something nonsensical or ridiculous.

11. APPLESAUCE

Applesauce became more than sauce from apples in the 1920s, says DARE, and may also refer to insincere flattery and lies, according to the OED. The term is attributed to Thomas Aloysius Dorgan, a cartoonist, sports writer, and inventor of slan­­­g whose phrases appeared in newspapers "at home and (in translation) abroad."

12. BALOOEY

Balooey!” a Texan might say if they think you’ve said something untrue. This nonsense word is a blend of baloney and hooey. Baloney meaning humbug or nonsense is from about 1928, says the OED, while hooey is from 1924.

13. BOSH

Chiefly used in the South, South Midland, and Northeast, bosh first appeared in English in the 19th century. It comes from the Turkish word bosh, meaning empty or worthless, which entered English because of its use in a popular novel at the time, Ayesha, the Maid of Kars by British writer and diplomat James Justinian Morier.

14. CUSH

Faced with nonsense in Virginia? “That’s a lot of cush,” you could say. DARE says this idiom for nonsense or rubbish might be related to cush, meaning a southern dish made with cornmeal or cornbread that can be sweet or savory.

15. FUSH

Head up to New England and instead of cush, you’d say fush for “nonsense.” To be even more colorful, you could say, “Fush to Bungtown!”

16. FLABBERDEGAZ

If someone from the Northwest says you’re full of flabberdegaz, watch out: They’re saying you’re full of “vain imaginings in speech,” says DARE. The word is probably related to flabbergast, to confuse or confound, and perhaps flabberdegasky, a 19th-century nonce word.

17. FLUMMADIDDLE

Flummadiddle, in addition to nonsense and foolishness, refers to a New England concoction of “stale bread, pork fat, molasses, water, cinnamon, allspice, and cloves,” says DARE. It's a “kind of mush, baked in the oven."

18. FLAPDOODLE

Speaking of weird food, flapdoodle (also spelled flapdaddle) is “an imaginary food of fools,” says DARE, as well as a term for “nonsense.” From The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain: “He gets up ... and slobbers out a speech, all full of tears and flapdoodle.”

19. FLUBDUB

Flub-a-dub-dub, balderdash in a tub. This word for bombastic or inept language has been used in U.S. English since at least 1888, according to the OED.

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