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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.).

All images courtesy of iStock.

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How to Craft the Perfect Comeback, According to Experts
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In a 1997 episode of Seinfeld called “The Comeback,” George Costanza is merrily stuffing himself with free shrimp at a meeting. His coworker mocks him: “Hey, George, the ocean called. They’re running out of shrimp.” George stands humiliated as laughter fills the room, his mind searching frantically for the perfect riposte.

It’s only later, on the drive home, that he thinks of the comeback. But the moment has passed.

The common human experience of thinking of the perfect response too late—l’esprit de l’escalier, or "the wit of the staircase"—was identified by French philosopher Denis Diderot when he was so overwhelmed by an argument at a party that he could only think clearly again once he’d gotten to the bottom of the stairs.

We've all been there. Freestyle rappers, improv comedians, and others who rely on witty rejoinders for a living say their jobs make them better equipped to seize the opportunity for clever retorts in everyday life. They use a combination of timing, listening, and gagging their inner critics. Here are their insights for crafting the perfect comeback.

LISTEN TO YOUR OPPONENT’S ARGUMENT.

The next time you’re in a heated conversation, be less focused on what you're about to say and more attentive to what you're actually responding to. When you spend more time considering what your sparring partner is saying, “you’re deferring your response until you’ve fully heard the other person," Jim Tosone, a technology executive-turned-improv coach who developed the Improv Means Business program, tells Mental Floss. Your retorts may be more accurate, and therefore more successful, when you’re fully engaged with the other person’s thoughts.

DON’T THINK TOO MUCH.

According to Belina Raffy, the CEO of the Berlin-based company Maffick—which also uses improv skills in business—not overthinking the situation is key. “You’re taking yourself out of unfolding reality if you think too much,” she tells Mental Floss. It’s important to be in the moment, and to deliver your response to reflect that moment.

TRAIN THAT SPONTANEOUS MENTAL MUSCLE.

History’s most skilled comeback artists stored witticisms away for later use, and were able to pull them out of their memory at the critical time.

Winston Churchill was known for his comebacks, but Tim Riley, director and chief curator at the National Churchill Museum in Fulton, Missouri, tells Mental Floss that many of his burns were borrowed. One of his most famous lines was in response to politician Bessie Braddock’s jab, “Sir, you are drunk.” The prime minister replied, “And you, Bessie, are ugly. But I shall be sober in the morning, and you will still be ugly.”

Riley says this line was copied from comic W.C. Fields. Nevertheless, it took quick thinking to remember and reshape the quote in the moment, which is why Churchill was thought of as a master of timing. “It was an off-the-cuff recall of something he had synthesized, composed earlier, and that he was waiting to perform,” Riley says.

But in some situations, the retort must be created entirely in the moment. Training for spontaneity on stage also helps with being quicker-witted in social situations, New York City battle rap emcee iLLspokinn tells Mental Floss. It’s like working a spontaneous muscle that builds with each flex, so, you’re incrementally better each time at seizing that witty opportunity.

MUZZLE YOUR INNER CRITIC.

Anyone who has been in the audience for an improv show has seen how rapidly performers respond to every situation. Improv teaches you to release your inhibitions and say what drops into your mind: “It’s about letting go of the need to judge ourselves,” Raffy explains.

One way to break free of your internal editor might be to imagine yourself on stage. In improv theater, the funniest responses occur in the spur of the moment, says Douglas Widick, an improv performer who trained with Chicago’s Upright Citizens Brigade. By not letting one’s conscience be one’s guide, actors can give into their “deepest fantasies” and say the things they wouldn’t say in real life.

IF YOU HAVE AN EXTRA SECOND, HONE YOUR ZINGER.

The German version of Diderot’s term is Treppenwitz, also meaning the wit of the stairs. But the German phrase has evolved to mean the opposite: Something said that, in retrospect, was a bad joke. When squaring up to your rival, the high you get from spearing your opponent with a deadly verbal thrust can be shadowed by its opposite, the low that comes from blurting out a lame response that lands like a lead balloon.

That's a feeling that freestyle rapper Lex Rush hopes to avoid. “In the heat of the battle, you just go for it,” she tells Mental Floss. She likens the fight to a “stream of consciousness” that unfolds into the mic, which leaves her with little control over what she’s projecting into the crowd.

It may help to mull over your retort if you have a few extra seconds—especially if you’re the extroverted type. “Introverts may walk out of a meeting thinking, ‘Why didn’t I say that?’ while extroverts think, ‘Why did I say that?’” Tosone, the improv coach, says. Thinking before you speak, even just briefly, will help you deploy a successful comeback.

And if it doesn’t go your way, iLLspokinn advises brushing off your missed opportunity rather than dwelling on your error: “It can be toxic to hold onto it."

THROW DIGITAL SHADE ACCORDING TO THE SAME RULES—BUT BE QUICK ABOUT IT.

Texting and social media, as opposed to face-to-face contact, give you a few extra minutes to think through your responses. That could improve the quality of your zinger. “We’re still human beings, even on screens. And we prefer something that is well-stated and has a fun energy and wit about it," Scott Talan, a social media expert at American University, tells Mental Floss.

But don't wait too long: Replies lose their punch after a day or so. “Speed is integral to wit, whether in real life or screen life,” Talan says. “If you’re trying to be witty and have that reputation, then speed will help you."

Some companies have excelled in deploying savage social media burns as marketing strategies, winning viral retweets and recognition. The Wendy’s Twitter account has become so well known for its sassy replies that users often provoke it. “Bet you won’t follow me @Wendys,” a user challenged. “You won that bet,” Wendy’s immediately shot back.

George Costanza learns that lesson when he uses his rehearsed comeback at the next meeting. After his colleague repeats his shrimp insult, George stands and proudly announces, “Oh yeah? Well, the jerk store called, and they’re running out of you!”

There’s silence—until his nemesis comes back with a lethal move: “What’s the difference? You’re their all-time best-seller.”

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Why Do Americans Call It ‘Soccer’ Instead of ‘Football’?
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While more Americans than ever are embracing soccer, they can't even get the sport's name right, according to some purists. For most of the world, including the vast majority of Europe and South America, it’s football, fútbol, or some other variation. In the United States, Canada, Japan, and a few other stragglers, it’s firmly known as soccer, much to the annoyance of those who can't understand how a sport played with feet and a ball can be called anything else. So why the conflict?

According to a paper [PDF] by University of Michigan professor Stefan Szymanski, it all began in England in the early 1800s, when a version of the sport of football—based on a game played by “common people” in the Middle Ages—found its way into the recreational scene of some of the country’s most privileged schools. To give uniformity to the competitions between these schools and clubs, a set of standard rules was drafted by students in Cambridge in 1848. These rules would become further solidified when they were adopted by the more organized Football Association in 1863.

It wasn't long before variations of the sport began to splinter off—in 1871, the Rugby Football Union was founded, using Rugby School rules from the 1830s that allowed a player to run with the ball in their hands. This new take on the sport would be known as rugby football, or rugger, to separate itself from association football, the traditional feet-only version of the sport. From there, association football would get the nickname assoccer, leading eventually to just soccer. The addition of an "er" at the end of a word was something of a trend at the time, which is why we get the awkward transformation of association into assoccer and soccer.

The first recorded American football game was between the colleges of Rutgers and Princeton in 1869 and used unique rules derived from those in both association and rugby football. Though this new, evolving game would just be called football in the U.S., elsewhere it would become known as gridiron football or American football, much in the way Gaelic football and Australian football have their own distinctions. Eventually in England, rugby football was shortened to just rugby, while association football simply became known as football. Which meant that now there were two footballs, on opposite sides of the Atlantic, and neither side would budge. And Americans would begin referring to England's football by the previous nickname, soccer.

Despite the confusion nowadays, soccer was still a colloquial term used in England well into the 20th century—it rose in popularity following World War II before falling out of favor in the 1970s and ‘80s, according to Szymanski. In more recent years, it’s mostly been used in England in a strictly American context, like when publications and the media refer to U.S. leagues like Major League Soccer (MLS). Currently, soccer is mostly used in countries that have their own competing version of football—including the United States, Canada, and Australia.

While it boils the blood of certain traditionalists, soccer is by no means an Americanism—like the sport itself, this is purely an English export.

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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