Arabic Loanwords in English: From Syrup to Safaris

If someone asked you for an Arabic word that’s used in English, what would come to mind? Hummus? Tahini? Maybe falafel?

Well, you’re right that these are all words that came into the English language from Arabic. And that’s not surprising, since words related to food are commonly transferred from one language into another.

Hummus means “chickpeas” in Arabic, which is what the Middle Eastern dish is made of. According to many linguists, falafel can be traced to the Arabic word falaafil, the plural of filfil, mepancakes with syrup1aning “pepper,” but also used to refer to small round things in earlier stages of the language. If you’ve ever seen and enjoyed round falafel balls, you’ll understand the connection. (If you haven’t, now’s the time to do so.) Tahini comes from the Arabic word for “to grind.” This makes sense, since the delicious paste served as a dip for pitas is produced by grinding sesame seeds.

Among the many food-related Arabic loanwords in English, there are some that you might not have considered. Did you know that the words syrup, sherbet, and sorbet all come from the same source in Arabic, sharaab or sharbah, meaning “a drink” or “syrup”?

The word sharaab was first borrowed in the Middle Ages into Latin, where it became syrupus (because Latin doesn’t have the sh sound like Arabic does) and typically referred to a medicinal potion. From there, it naturally made it into Latin’s daughter languages Italian and French. And like many other French words, syrup (or rather sirop, as it was spelled then) ended up in English following the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, when French became the language of the English government and culture.

The Arabic word sharbah found its way into English via a different route. Turkish speakers used their version of the word, sherbet, to refer to a sweet fruit drink. The drink and its name caught on in Europe during the Renaissance and eventually applied to the frozen dessert we’re familiar with today. Sorbet is simply the French pronunciation of the same Turkish word.

Of course, you won’t find words of Arabic origin just at the supermarket or in a restaurant. The next time you walk into a clothing store, you’ll probably use words of Arabic origin like cotton or sequins. And if you go on safari—which comes from the Arabic word for “journey” via Swahili—you’ll probably encounter giraffes and gazelles, whose names come from Arabic too.

Arabic has contributed a few thousand words to the English vocabulary in a wide variety of fields. Once you start learning the language, try and identify them!

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Avi Eilam

Avi is a social media marketing specialist at Rosetta Stone, where he combines his knowledge of languages with his love of social media. He holds a PhD in Linguistics from the University of Pennsylvania and speaks Hebrew, Arabic, and a smattering of Finnish. Born in one historic city, Jerusalem, Avi now lives in another, Washington, D.C. And he's enjoying every minute!
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