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

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iStock

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.”

10 Words & Phrases Coined in Comic Strips

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iStock/crisserbug

Cartoons, comics, and newspaper comic strips might seem like an unusual source of new words and phrases, but English is such an eclectic language—and comic strips have always had daily access to such a vast number of people—that a few of their coinages have slipped into everyday use. Here are the etymological stories behind 10 examples of precisely that.

1. Brainiac

The most famous brainiac is a cold-hearted, hyper-intelligent adversary of Superman who first appeared as an alien in DC Comics’ Action Comic #242, “The Super-Duel In Space,” in 1958. But after releasing his first adventure, DC Comics discovered that the name was already in use for a do-it-yourself computer kit. In deference to the kit, Brainiac was turned into a “computer personality” and became the great villain. As a nickname for an expert or intellectual, his (and the kit’s) name slipped into more general use in English by the early 1970s.

2. Curate’s Egg

Like the curate’s egg is a 19th century English expression that has come to mean something comprised of both good and bad parts. It comes from a one-off cartoon entitled “True Humility” that appeared in the British satirical magazine Punch in November 1895. Drawn by the artist George du Maurier (grandfather of the novelist Daphne du Maurier), the cartoon depicted a stern-looking bishop sharing breakfast with a young curate, who has unluckily been served a bad egg. Not wanting to make a scene in front of the bishop, the curate is shown eating the egg anyway, alongside the caption “Oh no, my Lord, I assure you, parts of it are excellent.”

3. Goon

Goon is thought to originally derive from gony, an old English dialect word once used by sailors to describe cumbersome-looking seabirds like albatrosses and pelicans. Based on this initial meaning, in the early 1900s, goon came to be used as another word for an equally dull-looking or slow-witted person, and it was this that presumably inspired Popeye cartoonist EC Segar to create the character of Alice the Goon for his Thimble Theater series of comics in 1933. But it’s Segar’s portrayal of Alice—as a dutiful but impossibly strong 8-foot giantess—that went on to inspire the use of goon as a nickname for a hired heavy or thug, paid to intimidate or terrorize someone without asking questions, in 1930s slang.

4. Jeep

Jeep is popularly said to derive from an approximate pronunciation of the letters “GP,” which are in turn taken as an abbreviation of “general purpose” vehicle. If so, then jeep belongs alongside only a handful other examples (like deejay, okay, veep and emcee) in an unusual class of words that begin their life as a phrase, then become an abbreviation, and then a whole new word based on the abbreviation—but in the case of jeep, that’s probably not the entire story. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the spelling jeep was likely influenced by the character Eugene the Jeep, a yellow cat-like animal (that only ever made a jeep! jeep! noise) that also first appeared alongside Popeye in EC Segar’s Thimble Theater in 1936. Jeep was then adopted into military slang during the Second World War as a nickname for an inexperienced or enthusiastic new recruit, but eventually somehow came to establish itself as another name for a specialized military vehicle in the early 1940s and it’s this meaning that remains in place today.

5. Keeping Up With The Joneses

A Keeping Up With the Joneses strip from 1921
A "Keeping up with the Joneses" comic strip from 1921
Pop Momand, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Synonymous with the quiet rivalries between neighbors and friends, the idiom keeping up with the Joneses comes from the title of a comic strip created by the cartoonist Arthur “Pop” Momand in 1913. Based partly on Momand’s own experiences in one of the wealthiest parts of New York, the strip ran for almost 30 years in the American press and even inspired a cartoon series during the height of its popularity in the 1920s. The eponymous Joneses—whom Momand wanted originally to call “The Smiths,” before deciding that “Joneses” sounded better—were the next-door neighbors of the cartoon’s central characters, but were never actually depicted in the series.

6. Malarkey

Etymologically, malarkey is said to somehow derive from the old Irish surname Mullarkey, but precisely how or why is unclear. As a nickname for rubbish or nonsense talk, however, its use in English is often credited to the American cartoonist Thomas Aloysius Dorgan—better known as “TAD”—who first used it in this context in several of his Indoor Sports cartoon series in the early 1920s. But the spelling hadn’t been standardized yet. Once he spelled it Milarkey referring to a place, and in one famous example, depicting a courtroom scene, one of Dorgan’s characters exclaims, “Malachy! You said it: I wouldn’t trust a lawyer no further than I could throw a case of Scotch!” (Dorgan, incidentally, is also credited with giving the English language the phrases cat’s pajamas and drugstore cowboy.)

7. Milquetoast

Taking his name from the similarly bland breakfast snack “milk toast,” the character Caspar Milquetoast was created by the American cartoonist Harold T. Webster in 1924. The star of Webster’s Timid Soul comic strip, Caspar was portrayed as a quiet, submissive, bespectacled old man, whom Webster himself once described as the kind of man who “speaks softly and gets hit with a big stick.” His name has been used as a byword for any equally submissive or ineffectual person since the mid-1930s.

8. Poindexter

When Otto Messmer’s Felix the Cat comic strip was adapted for television in the late 1950s, a whole host of new supporting characters was added to the cast, including a super-intelligent, labcoat-wearing schoolboy named Poindexter, who was the nephew of Felix’s nemesis, The Professor. Created by the cartoonist Joe Oriolo, Poindexter’s name—which was apparently taken from that of Oriolo’s attorney—had become a byword for a nerdish or intellectual person in English slang by the early 1980s.

9. Shazam

Shazam was coined in Whiz Comics #2 in February 1940, as the name of an old wizard who grants 12-year-old Billy Batson the ability to transform into Captain Marvel. The wizard’s name, Shazam, was henceforth also Captain Marvel’s magic word, with which he was able to call on the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles and the speed of Mercury.

10. Zilch

As another word for “zero,” zilch has been used in English since the early '60s. But before then, from the 1930s onward, it was predominantly used as a nickname for any useless and hopeless character or non-entity or someone who didn't exist. In this context it was probably coined in and popularized by a series of cartoons that first appeared in Ballyhoo humor magazine in 1931, and which featured a hapless unseen businessman character named “President Henry P. Zilch.” Although it’s possible the writers of Ballyhoo created the name from scratch, it’s likely that they were at least partly inspired by an old student slang expression, Joe Zilsch, which was used in the 1920s in the same way as John Doe or Joe Sixpack would be today.

This list first ran in 2015 and was republished in 2019.

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