14 Common Food and Drink Words With Arabic Origins

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A surprising number of common English food and beverage words have Arabic backgrounds. Spanish absorbed many Arabic words during the centuries that the Moors occupied the Iberian Peninsula, 711 to 1492 AD. Some of these words spread to other European languages, including French. Following the Norman Conquest, some of them entered English. Sometimes, though, the words traveled other routes from Arabic to English.

1. Alcohol

The word originally referred not to intoxicating drink, but to enticing eye make-up. The Arabic word al-kul meant "(the) kohl," the black powder used for eyeliner since ancient Egyptian times. The cosmetic was still used in North Africa and the Middle East when the word entered English in the 1500s. Although the powder was made by grinding various minerals, alcohol came to mean any fine powder or a distilled essence or spirit. In the 1700s, alcohol acquired its current meaning: a colorless volatile flammable liquid that is the intoxicating constituent of wine, beer, spirits, and other drinks.

2. Apricot

This word has a baroque history. It entered English in the 16th century from Portuguese albricoque or Spanish albaricoque, but later was modified by the related French word abricot. Old Spanish albarcoque came from Spanish Arabic al-borcoque, from Arabic al-burqūq. The Arabic word derives from late Greek praikokion, from Latin praecoquum, a variant of praecox, "early ripe."

3. Artichoke

The ancient Egyptians, Romans, and classical Greek inhabitants of Sicily ate cardoons, the wild relative of artichokes. Most likely, the artichoke was cultivated from the wild cardoon in the Islamic world and distributed throughout it by 1500. Artichoke came into English in the mid 16th century from northern Italian articiocco, which came from Spanish alcarchofa, ultimately from Arabic al-karšūfa.

4. Coffee

Coffee comes from Arabic qahwah, meaning coffee or wine, perhaps originally “dark stuff.” The word entered European languages about 1600 from Turkish kahve. It may have passed into English through Italian caffè or Dutch koffie.

5. Lemon 

Lemon may come from Arabic līmūn (a collective term for citrus fruits), via Old French limon (which means "lime" in modern French), although similar words occur in Persian and Sanskrit, making the origin uncertain.

6. Lime

Lime appeared in English in the 17th century from French lime or from modern Provençal limo, from Spanish lima, from Arabic līma. 

7. Orange

Orange has a long and complex history. The American Heritage Dictionary traces the word back to the Dravidian languages of southern India and Sri Lanka, where the fruit likely originated. The editors say that in ancient times, a Dravidian word similar to the modern Tamil word for orange, nāram, was adopted into the Indo-European language Sanskrit as nāraṅgah. As the fruit moved westward, the word entered Persian as nārang and Arabic as nāranj. The Arabs brought oranges to Spain and Sicily between the 8th and 10th centuries and from there the fruit spread to the rest of Europe. Italian adopted the Arabic word as arancio. French altered the first vowel to o-, perhaps influenced by the place name Orange and also by the Old French word or, "gold," in reference to the color. What happened to the n-? It was probably absorbed by the preceding /n/ sound in the indefinite article in French and Italian, although in some cases the n- was already lost in Arabic. The word came into English from Anglo-Norman about 1400. It was first used to denote a color in the mid 1500s.

8. Saffron

It takes a heap of crocus flowers to produce enough stigmas (the part of a pistil that receives the pollen during pollination) to impart the distinctive flavor and bright orange color needed for paella or other dishes in which saffron is used. That’s why it’s so costly. The word entered English before 1200 from Old French safran. In one of The Canterbury Tales, Chaucer describes Sir Thopas: “His heer, his berd was lyk saffroun.” The origin of the word is Arabic zafarān.

9. Sherbet

Sherbet was originally a Middle Eastern beverage made from fruit juice and sweetened water, often cooled with snow. English picked up the word in the early 1600s from Turkish and Persian. Those languages got the word from Arabic sharbah, from shariba to drink. In 19th-century England, sherbet came to mean a sweet, fizzy drink. Now in British English sherbet refers to a fizzy, flavored powder eaten by dipping a finger into the packet. In American English, it refers to a frozen dessert made with fruit juice added to milk or cream, egg white, or gelatin.

10. Sorbet

In the late 16th century, English got the word sorbet from French, which got it from Italian sorbetto, which came from Turkish shorbet, which goes back to sharbah, the same Arabic word that is the origin of sherbet. In American usage, sorbet tends to be lighter than sherbet, often made with just ice and flavoring. 

11. Carob 

The carob tree is a small evergreen native to the eastern Mediterranean that bears long brownish-purple edible pods. The flour made from the pods is sometimes promoted as a chocolate substitute (as if!). According to the OED, the carob pod is “generally identified with the ‘husks’ eaten by the prodigal in the parable, Luke 15:16; and by some taken to be the ‘locusts’ eaten by John the Baptist, whence the names locust-pods, and St. John's bread.” Carob entered English in the mid-1500s, from Old French carobe, from medieval Latin carrubia, from Arabic kharrūba.

12. Caraway

The seeds of the caraway plant, a member of the parsley family, have an anise-like taste and are used to flavor desserts, cheese, Indian rice dishes, and other foods. Caraway entered English around 1440, either from medieval Latin carui, or from a Romance language cognate. (The word is carvi in French, Italian, and Spanish.) In Old Spanish, it was alcaravea or alcarahueya, from Arabic al-karawiyā or –karwiyā.  The editors of the New Oxford American Dictionary believe that the Arabic word is probably derived from Greek karon, "cumin," an idea disputed by the OED.

13. Syrup

The word entered English at the end of the 14th century, from Old French sirop or medieval Latin siropus, ultimately from Arabic sharāb wine or other beverage, syrup, shurb drink. 

14. Tamarind

Tamarind refers to the sticky brown acidic pulp from the pod of a tree of the pea family, widely used as a flavoring in Asian cooking; the pod from which this pulp is extracted; or the tropical African tree that yields the pods. The word shows up in English in the 1500s from medieval Latin tamarindus, from Arabic tamr hindī, "Indian date." 

Sources Oxford English Dictionary Online, accessed via www.lapl.org/; New Oxford American Dictionary, (2nd ed.); Agricultural Innovation in the Early Islamic World, p. 64; American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.).

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