Thursday, June 12, 2014

Word Odyssey: A Pair of Haboobs—and Other Arabic Loan Words

Posted By on Thu, Jun 12, 2014 at 9:00 AM

When an Arizona weatherman used the Arabic word haboob to describe a Phoenix area dust storm, one outraged listener railed: “I am insulted that local TV news crews are now calling this kind of storm a haboob… hearing some Middle Eastern term?” Apparently haboobs come in pairs, because another one followed just a few days later.

Dude, relax, sit back on your sofa, or your divan, or your mattress, have a soda, spike it with alcohol, have a massage, and contemplate all the Arabic words you use all the time—starting with sofa, divan, mattress, soda, massage and alcohol. Alcohol contains a giveaway that it’s Arabic: that “al” prefix. “Al” means “the” in Arabic, as in Allah and Al Jazeira. So when you hear alcove, alchemy, algebra, algorithm, alkali, almanac, albatross and alfalfa you can be pretty darn well sure that English borrowed these words from Arabic.
Some of those words, like algebra, are mathematical. The Arabs didn’t invent algebra. The ancient Greeks did. But Arabia is near Greece, and the Arabs borrowed algebra from the Greeks, then raised it to a separate mathematical discipline that was later adopted by Europeans.

Western culture also adopted its numbering system from Arabic. That’s why numbers are called Arabic numerals. So if you’re counting haboobs and other insulting Arabic words, the insults are just going to keep adding up. If it makes you feel better, though, the Arabs themselves didn’t call them Arabic numerals. They called them Hindu numerals. The Arab mathematician Al-Khwarizmi wrote a treatise translated as “On the Calculation with Hindu Numerals”. When this treatise was translated from Arabic to Latin in the 12th century, the translator rendered the author’s name as “Algoritmi”, which is where we get the English word algorithm. So even though Arabs got the numbering system from Hindi culture, we call them Arabic numerals because that’s where Western culture found them. Oh, and zero is from Arabic, as is cipher, which is a corruption of zero.

Arabs didn’t invent political murder, either, but they did kind of invent the word for a particular kind of political murderer: the assassin. Hassan-i Sabbah founded Nizar-i, which is a branch of Shia Islam. The Nizari weren’t above killing political and religious foes, including Crusaders. Before embarking on a mission, the Nizari are thought to have worked themselves up with some help from hashish. That’s where the word assassin comes from: hashish.

An Admiral of a fleet owes his title to Arabic, probably stemming from “amir”, a commander or chief, then Latinized by crusaders in Sicily. A decent admiral will be sure to have plenty of arms and ammo stored in an arsenal, another word of Arabic origin, as is magazine in the sense of military storehouse.

We’ve also borrowed many kinder, gentler words from Arabic. When you put sugar in your coffee; when you bite into an apricot, orange, lime or a piece of candy; when you smell jasmine, lilac or saffron; when you put on cotton, gauze, muslin, sequins, henna or anything scarlet or crimson; or when a member of your harem plays the lute—okay, so maybe that isn’t very likely to happen, but if it did, you would be indebted to Arabic.

It’s just about haboob season in Arizona, so look out, and take comfort in the fact that the monsoons will be arriving shortly. Uh oh! Just like haboob, ya better tell the weatherman to stop saying monsoon and start saying “this seasonal period marked by heavy rains.”

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