What's in a word?

A surprising number of English words are derived from Arabic including

algebra - a branch of mathematics developed by the Arabs whose

contribution to our civilisation is often overlooked. Middle East

editor Brian Whitaker reports

Friday August 25, 2000 The Guardian (http://www.guardian.co.uk/) 

Here is a word game. Spot the odd one out:

admiral, alchemy, alcohol, alcove, algebra, algorithm, alkali,

almanac, amalgam, aniline, apricot, arsenal, arsenic, artichoke,

assassin, aubergine, azure, borax, cable, calibre, camphor, candy,

cannabis, carafe, carat, caraway, checkmate, cipher, coffee, cotton,

crimson, crocus, cumin, damask, elixir, gauze, gazelle, ghoul,

giraffe, guitar, gypsum, hashish, hazard, jar, jasmine, lacquer,

lemon, lilac, lime, lute, magazine, marzipan, massage, mattress,

muslin, myrrh, nadir, orange, safari, saffron, samizdat, sash, sequin,

serif, sesame, shackle, sherbet, shrub, sofa, spinach, sugar, sultana,

syrup, talc, tamarind, tambourine, tariff, tarragon, zenith, zero

In case you're stuck, I'll give you a clue. All the words, except one,

are of Arabic origin. In fact, there are probably several hundred

Arabic words in English, though dictionaries don't always make the

derivation clear: many have entered the language through Spanish or


Most of the words came to Europe during the seven centuries of Muslim

rule which began in 711 AD when an army led by Tariq ibn Ziyad landed

at what we now know as Gibraltar - a mispronunciation of Jabal Tariq

("Tariq's mountain"). The Arabs rapidly conquered Spain, Portugal and

parts of Italy, and ventured as far north as Poitiers in France.

The contribution that the Arabs made to our civilisation during this

period is often overlooked today - though anyone who visits Granada,

Cordova or Seville in southern Spain cannot fail to be reminded of it,

and impressed.

The Arabs of those days were great seekers of knowledge, collecting

and translating books from all over the known world. Much of ancient

Greek literature - including works by Aristotle, Euclid, Galen and

Hippocrates - first reached western Europe through Arabic


But it was in the early development of sciences - medicine, chemistry,

astronomy and mathematics - that the Arabs really excelled. None more

so than mathematics. They gave us our numbering system (much more

efficient than the Roman system, though the Arabs themselves later

adopted Indian numerals).

They also developed algebra and improved on ancient Greek geometry.

But perhaps their biggest contribution in mathematics is nothing at

all: they discovered the concept of zero, without which most modern

technology would not work.

Muslim rule in Europe ended in 1492 which, by coincidence, was the

year that Christopher Columbus set foot in America. I was intrigued

the other day to read an article on the internet

(http://users.erols.com/gmqm/columbus.html) suggesting that he

probably baffled the inhabitants of the New World by greeting them in

Arabic: as-salaamu alaykum ("peace be upon you").

This is not as improbable as it sounds. In those days Arabic was very

much an international language, and Columbus had been looking for a

new route to the East Indies - an area which he knew the Arabs had

explored before him. So he took with him Luis de Torres, an

Arabic-speaking Spaniard, as his interpreter.

Today, the tables are turned. Arabs usually resort to English when

encountering a foreigner. Indeed, they say "aloo" (hello) when

answering the phone, even if the caller is likely to be another Arab.

A few years ago I went on an Arabic language course in Jordan. One

day, for comprehension practice, we were taken to the university's

engineering department for a talk about some solar-powered street

lights they were developing.

After a few moments our teacher interrupted. "The students are here to

learn Arabic. Please don't speak in English."

"It's very difficult," said the engineer. "I don't have the words in


Many Arabs worry about this, believing that their language is losing

its purity in the face of an onslaught of foreign vocabulary. Some

would like to see an Arabic Academy, along the lines of the French

Academy, discouraging the use of foreign words and promoting

alternatives derived from Arabic roots.

Sometimes the Arabic words do exist. Sayyara ("a thing that moves

about") is widely used for "car", but Moroccans prefer tumubeel (a

corruption of "automobile").

Recently, I had a meeting with an Arab ambassador in London who is

also a rather fine poet. We had intended to talk about politics but

spent half an hour discussing language, which was much more


He told me he had done something very radical and, to some Arabs,

horrifying, in one of his poems. He had used al-talafoon - the

everyday word for telephone - instead al-hatif, a classical word

meaning, literally, "the invisible caller".

The argument over linguistic immigration is not just a literary one:

it has political and religious dimensions. Arab nationalists see it as

another example of overbearing western influence, while devout Muslims

believe that God chose to reveal His message - the Koran - in Arabic

because of the superior qualities of the language.

Arabic is certainly a wonderfully expressive language, and I have met

Arabs with little education whose feel for its words and their

capabilities is absolutely astonishing. But all languages have some

weaknesses and, by interchange, can enrich each other.

The Algerians are famous - or notorious - for mixing Arabic and

French, often in the same sentence, and occasionally even in the same

word. One of these hybrids is "haytiste" which combines the Arabic

word hayt ("wall") with the French -iste (as in "artiste"). It

describes the sort of young Algerian man - unemployed, bored and, in

all probability, up to no good - who hangs around the streets leaning

against walls.

You won't find it in the dictionary, but you'd be hard pressed find an

eight-letter word in any language more replete with colourful social


* And the odd word out? Samizdat is Russian.


The Guardian, Friday August 18, 2000

Why the 'rules' of racism are different for Arabs

Arabs are the only really vicious racial stereotypes still considered

acceptable in Hollywood, writes Middle East editor Brian Whitaker

Brian Whitaker Friday August 18, 2000 The Guardian

"Stop it, you dirty little Arab!" My grandmother always used to say

that when I did something disgusting, like picking my nose or flicking

food at my younger brother.

It was a long time ago, of course. In those days children were taught

rhymes like "Ten Little Nigger Boys" and recited them to admiring


We have certainly come a long way since then. Oddly, though - and I

have noticed this particularly since starting to write about the

Middle East for the Guardian - there are people who seem happy to talk

about Arabs in terms that they would never use when talking about

black people. It doesn't occur to them that this is racist.

Last week, Rules of Engagement, a film about a siege at the American

embassy in Yemen, arrived in Britain after earning millions of dollars

in the United States. It has been described as the most racist film

ever made against Arabs by Hollywood.

The Arab characters - in this case, Yemenis - are, without exception,

portrayed as deceitful, bloodthirsty fanatics. The "hero", an American

Marines colonel, massacres 83 of them, and the film suggests that this

sort of thing is justified for the greater good of America.

Interestingly, though, the heroic colonel is played by a black actor

(Samuel L Jackson) who appears totally integrated into American

society. Nobody mentions his colour or appears to treat him

differently because of it. In that respect only, the film is less

racist than many others. Since Rules of Engagement was released,

several critics have observed that Arabs are the only really vicious

racial stereotypes still considered acceptable in Hollywood.

Possibly these complaints are an over-reaction to what, after all, is

a film-maker's fantasy rather than the reality. But perhaps not.

On the day that Rules of Engagement arrived in Britain, the National

Transportation Safety Board in Washington issued its first report on

the crash of EgyptAir flight 990 off Nantucket last October.

What should have been a methodical, scientific, investigation has

turned into a highly charged clash of cultures between Egypt and the


As the plane fell from the sky, the co-pilot repeated an Arabic

phrase, "tawakilt 'ala Allah" (I rely on God). This phrase, picked up

by the cockpit voice recorder, was leaked to the American media, who

variously described it as "a prayer" or a "chant", fuelling the theory

that the co-pilot was an Islamic fundamentalist who had deliberately

crashed the plane.

The Egyptians were furious and pointed out that the phrase is

routinely used by Muslims, not just fundamentalists, when facing

difficult situations. They accused the American investigators of

making the co-pilot a scapegoat, and being reluctant to explore the

possibility of a mechanical failure in the American-built Boeing 767.

It certainly looked like an attempt to fit the co-pilot into

Hollywood's current stereotype of the fanatical Arab, but it didn't

wash. When the suicide theory began to look improbable, the

investigators re-moulded the co-pilot to fit a much earlier Hollywood

stereotype played by Rudolph Valentino in the 1920s - the over-sexed


The FBI came up with statements from staff at the hotel used by

EgyptAir crews in New York saying that the co-pilot was noted for

sexually harassing chambermaids and had once exposed himself through

the hotel window. Again, these allegations were leaked to the press.

This, apparently, was meant to imply that the co-pilot had an unstable

personality and should not have been allowed to fly. Questioning the

relevance of the FBI statements at a Washington press conference last

week, an Egyptian journalist asked whether, if that kind of behaviour

made someone unfit to control a plane, it did not also make the US

president Bill Clinton unfit to control nuclear weapons.

Nobody seems quite sure why anti-Arab racism is considered acceptable

when other forms of racism aren't. Some suggest that the political

role played by the west in the Middle East helps to legitimise the

stereotypes of popular culture, which in turn reinforce government


But I think attitudes to Islam may also be part of the problem. People

in the west often assume that Arabs are Muslims (and sometimes vice

versa). Hostility towards Islam - mostly based on ignorance - can mean

hostility towards Arabs. So perhaps anti-Arabism is not rooted in

racial prejudice but religious prejudice. Either way, it's still


Readers who have further explanations or suggestions on this topic are

welcome to contact me by email: brian.whitaker@guardian.co.uk. 


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