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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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How to Say Merry Christmas in 26 Different Languages
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“Merry Christmas” is a special greeting in English, since it’s the only occasion we say “merry” instead of “happy.” How do other languages spread yuletide cheer? Ampersand Travel asked people all over the world to send in videos of themselves wishing people a “Merry Christmas” in their own language, and while the audio quality is not first-rate, it’s a fun holiday-themed language lesson.

Feel free to surprise your friends and family this year with your new repertoire of foreign-language greetings.

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Big Questions
What’s the Difference Between a Gift and a Present?
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It’s that time again when we’re busy buying, wrapping, and giving them. Sometimes we call them gifts, sometimes presents. Is there a difference?

The words come to us from different language families. Gift comes from the old Germanic root for “to give.” It referred to an act of giving, and then, to the thing being given. In Old English it meant the dowry given to a bride’s parents. Present comes from the French for "to present." A present is the thing presented or bestowed. They were both in use for the idea of something undergoing a transfer of possession without expectation of payment from the 13th century onward.

The words gift and present are well-matched synonyms that mean essentially the same thing, but even well-matched synonyms have their own connotations and distinctive patterns of use. Gift applies to a wider range of situations. Gifts can be talents. You can have the gift of gab, or a musical gift. Gifts can be intangibles. There is the gift of understanding or the gift of a quiet day. We generally don’t use present for things like this. Presents are more concrete. A bit more, well, present. If your whole family gave donations to your college fund for your birthday would you say “I got a lot of presents”? It doesn’t exactly sound wrong, but since you never hold these donations in your hand, gifts seems to fit better.

Gift can also be an attributive noun, acting like an adjective to modify another noun. What do you call the type of shop where you can buy presents for people? A gift shop. What do you call the basket of presents that you can have sent to all your employees? A gift basket. Present doesn’t work well in this role of describing other nouns. We have gift boxes, gift cards, and gift wrap, not present boxes, present cards, and present wrap.

Gift appears to be more frequent than present, though it is difficult to get accurate counts, because if you compare occurrences of the noun present with the noun gift, you include that other noun present, meaning the here and now. However, the plural noun presents captures only the word we want. Gifts outnumbers presents in the Corpus of Contemporary American English by four to one.

Still, according to my personal sense of the words, present—though it may not be as common—is more casual sounding than gift. I expect a child to ask Santa for lots and lots of presents, not many, many gifts. But whether it’s gifts or presents you prefer, I wish you many and lots this year, of both the tangible and intangible kind.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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