11 English Words That Make More Sense When You Know Their Arabic Roots

iStock
iStock

If you look too closely, some English vocabulary just ceases to be logical. You use fanfare all your life, for instance, and then you stop and think: Wait—what does fan have to do with fare? Is that like bus fare? Or a thoroughfare? And what’s a safflower, if saffron comes from a flower too?

I happened to solve a lot of these moments of etymological crisis just by studying Arabic (as detailed in my book All Strangers Are Kin: Adventures in Arabic and the Arab World), which is at the root of some seemingly English-through-and-through words. Granted, the Arabic is sometimes hard to recognize, usually because it has been filtered through French or Spanish. But trust me, it’s there—and it just might answer some of your most nagging linguistic questions.

1. CHECKMATE

This is one of those mysterious compound words that almost seems normal. You’re putting a check on your opponent’s king on the chessboard. Sure, smartie—then where does the mating come in?

In fact, checkmate came to English via the Arabic phrase shah mat, “the king is dead,” declared at the end of a chess game. Full credit, though, really goes to the Persians, who introduced chess to the Arabs, along with the winning phrase. In old Farsi, the phrase meant something like “the king is helpless”; mat already meant “died” in Arabic, so the phrase turned more, shall we say, decisive.

2. JUMPER

British English is weird. Big fuzzy sweaters don’t help you jump. And I admit I always just assumed those smocklike dress things were called jumpers because, well, they were so easy to put on, it was like jumping into them.

Totally irrelevant, as it happens. The word derives from jubba, a long tunic or outer robe. French borrowed the word first, and English sailors took it to mean a loose all-weather smock. And only after that did it cross the sea again to become a slip-on dress.

3. SAFFLOWER

This yellow-tinted but almost completely tasteless flower is often sold as a cheap substitute for wildly expensive saffron (and unscrupulous spice sellers will capitalize on the similar name). But the two words are as unrelated as the plants themselves. Saffron, the stamens of a crocus, comes from Arabic za’faran. Back in the super-wealthy days of the Islamic Empire, there was also a verb, za’fara, meaning to dye fabric yellow with saffron—fancy!

Safflower, on the other hand, is a scrubby little plant related to thistles. The word comes originally from the Arabic for yellow, asfar. English borrowed it via French, which made the Arabic a bit more familiar by squishing –fleur (flower) on the end to make saffleur.

4. FANFARE

Admit it—you’ve always pictured a parade with big fans. Or is that just me?

The most immediate ancestor of this odd compound word for a blare of trumpets is either Spanish (fanfarrón) or French (fanfaron), in which those words mean someone who brags or behaves with bluster or bravado.

But those words are likely taken from Arabic, either from the verb farfara, to shake or flutter or spin, or more literally, from anfar, bugles or trumpets (singular nafeer).

5. MAGAZINE

How you can you be sitting there on the sofa reading a magazine, while way out at sea, a captain is checking the weapons stored in his ship’s magazine? Or over at the shooting range, someone is sliding a magazine into a gun? How did this one word come to mean such different things?

Magazine comes from French magasin, which in turn comes from the Arabic makhazeen, meaning "storehouses" (singular makhzan). Only in English did people expand the meaning of magazine to include stores of information, as well as the usual stores of weapons and other military supplies.

6. MACRAMÉ

The accent mark on the end gives this word a French vibe, but since macramée is meaningless, it’s time to look elsewhere.

In Arabic, miqrama is an embroidered covering, now usually a bedspread, though in the past it was a piece of clothing as well. Like a lot of clothing and luxury vocabulary, the word made its way to English via Italian.

7. MOHAIR

Ah, spring—the season when shepherds shear their flocks of mos!

Alas, this is untrue. There is no animal called a mo, from which hair is cut and spun into delicate wool yarn. Mohair is really the Arabic adjective mukhayyir, choice or select—that is, the finest fluffy wool from the underbellies of cute Angora goats.

8. MUMMY

Fortunately, your mother has nothing to do with this one. Our English word mummy comes from Arabic moomiya (also used in Persian), a mineral substance used for medicine and embalming. By extension, the ancient Egyptians’ preserved corpses became moomiyat, or mummies.

And—fun fact!—as recently as the 18th century, Europeans believed that powdered scraps of mummies had medicinal properties when eaten. The original yummy mummy?

9. MUSLIN

Mixing up muslin, the fine cotton fabric, and Muslim is a common typo or mispronunciation, but there’s no linguistic connection. Muslin was a specialty of the city of Mosul in present-day Iraq; the word comes from the Arabic adjective for the city, mawsili.

10. POPINJAY

This old-fashioned word for a strutting, vain person started out in English as the word for parrot. It was taken from French papegai or Spanish papagayo, which came from Arabic babagha’, a green parrot.

Jays got in the picture only via Romance languages. Like safflower saffleur, popinjay began as a mash-up, starting with a strange Arabic word for parrot, babagha’, and ending with a familiar Romance-language one, gai or gayo, meaning bird. No surprise, then, that English spelled it –jay, another familiar bird word.

11. ARTICHOKE

Artichokes are delicious, but slightly sinister—those little spikes on the leaves, and that possibly deadly fine fluff that covers the vegetable’s heart. Don’t tell me I was the only one who thought you could choke on it.

I needn’t have worried. Artichoke is a mangling of Spanish alcochofa, in turn from Arabic al-khurshoof. But more recently, some dialects of Arabic borrowed the word back from English (or French, artichaut) and started calling it ardi shawki, “land thorn.”

Take Advantage of Amazon's Early Black Friday Deals on Tech, Kitchen Appliances, and More

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Even though Black Friday is still a few days away, Amazon is offering early deals on kitchen appliances, tech, video games, and plenty more. We will keep updating this page as sales come in, but for now, here are the best Amazon Black Friday sales to check out.

Kitchen

Instant Pot/Amazon

- Instant Pot Duo Plus 9-in-115 Quart Electric Pressure Cooker; $90 (save $40) 

- Le Creuset Enameled Cast Iron Signature Sauteuse 3.5 Quarts; $180 (save $120)

- KitchenAid KSMSFTA Sifter with Scale Attachment; $95 (save $75) 

- Keurig K-Mini Coffee Maker; $60 (save $20)

- Cuisinart Bread Maker; $88 (save $97)

- Anova Culinary Sous Vide Precision Cooker; $139 (save $60)

- Aicook Juicer Machine; $35 (save $15)

- JoyJolt Double Wall Insulated Espresso Mugs - Set of Two; $14 (save $10) 

- Longzon Silicone Stretch Lids - Set of 14; $13 (save $14)

HadinEEon Milk Frother; $37 (save $33)

Home Appliances

Roomba/Amazon

- iRobot Roomba 675 Robot Vacuum with Wi-Fi Connectivity; $179 (save $101)

- Fairywill Electric Toothbrush with Four Brush Heads; $19 (save $9)

- ASAKUKI 500ml Premium Essential Oil Diffuser; $22 (save $4)

- Facebook Portal Smart Video Calling 10 inch Touch Screen Display with Alexa; $129 (save $50)

- Bissell air320 Smart Air Purifier with HEPA and Carbon Filters; $280 (save $50)

Oscillating Quiet Cooling Fan Tower; $59 (save $31) 

TaoTronics PTC 1500W Fast Quiet Heating Ceramic Tower; $55 (save $10)

Vitamix 068051 FoodCycler 2 Liter Capacity; $300 (save $100)

AmazonBasics 8-Sheet Home Office Shredder; $33 (save $7)

Ring Video Doorbell; $70 (save $30) 

Video games

Nintendo

- Legend of Zelda Link's Awakening for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

- Marvel's Spider-Man: Game of The Year Edition for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $20)

- Marvel's Avengers; $27 (save $33)

- Minecraft Dungeons Hero Edition for Nintendo Switch; $20 (save $10)

- The Last of Us Part II for PlayStation 4; $30 (save $30)

- LEGO Harry Potter: Collection; $15 (save $15)

- Ghost of Tsushima; $40 (save $20)

BioShock: The Collection; $20 (save $30)

The Sims 4; $20 (save $20)

God of War for PlayStation 4; $10 (save $10)

Days Gone for PlayStation 4; $20 (save $6)

Luigi's Mansion 3 for Nintendo Switch; $40 (save $20)

Computers and tablets

Microsoft/Amazon

- Apple MacBook Air 13 inches with 256 GB; $899 (save $100)

- New Apple MacBook Pro 16 inches with 512 GB; $2149 (save $250) 

- Samsung Chromebook 4 Chrome OS 11.6 inches with 32 GB; $210 (save $20) 

- Microsoft Surface Laptop 3 with 13.5 inch Touch-Screen; $1200 (save $400)

- Lenovo ThinkPad T490 Laptop; $889 (save $111)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Tablet (64GB); $120 (save $70)

- Amazon Fire HD 10 Kids Edition Tablet (32 GB); $130 (save $70)

- Samsung Galaxy Tab A 8 inches with 32 GB; $100 (save $50)

Apple iPad Mini (64 GB); $379 (save $20)

- Apple iMac 27 inches with 256 GB; $1649 (save $150)

- Vankyo MatrixPad S2 Tablet; $120 (save $10)

Tech, gadgets, and TVs

Apple/Amazon

- Apple Watch Series 3 with GPS; $179 (save $20) 

- SAMSUNG 75-inch Class Crystal 4K Smart TV; $998 (save $200)

- Apple AirPods Pro; $199 (save $50)

- Nixplay 2K Smart Digital Picture Frame 9.7 Inch Silver; $238 (save $92)

- All-New Amazon Echo Dot with Clock and Alexa (4th Gen); $39 (save $21)

- MACTREM LED Ring Light 6" with Tripod Stand; $16 (save $3)

- Anker Soundcore Upgraded Bluetooth Speaker; $22 (save $8)

- Amazon Fire TV Stick with Alexa Voice Remote; $28 (save $12)

Canon EOS M50 Mirrorless Camera with EF-M 15-45mm Lens; $549 (save $100)

DR. J Professional HI-04 Mini Projector; $93 (save $37)

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

What Is a Crony?

Wikimedia Commons//Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons//Public Domain

By Mignon Fogarty, Quick and Dirty Tips

You know how words start to sound weird to you? Like you start doubting yourself and start thinking, “Is that even a word?” Well, I’ve been hearing the word crony a lot lately, and it started to sound weird to me; so out of curiosity, I looked it up and thought it had an especially interesting origin, so I want to share it with you.

What is the origin of the word crony?

According to Merriam-Webster, the root of the word crony is the Greek word chronos, which means “time.”

The same root gives us the words

  • Chronology: The order of things in time.
  • Chronic: Something that lasts a long time or is with you continuously like a chronic disease.
  • Synchronous: Happening at the same time.
  • Anachronism: Something that isn’t right for its time, like a cell phone in a movie that’s supposed to be set in the 1950s.

What does crony mean?

A crony is someone you’ve been friends with or have known for a long time, and it appears to have been a slang term used by British university students and alumni to describe their old chums.

Who first used the word crony?

The first citation in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is from the famous 17th-century diarist whom I’ve mentioned before, Samuel Pepys, who was a student at Cambridge. He referred to another man as “my old Schoolefellow … who was a great crony of mine.”

When did being a crony become a bad thing?

Today, crony often has a negative connotation, but all the examples in the OED use it in a good way, just to describe old friends. So I wanted to see when having cronies became a bad thing.

The negative meaning emerged in the United States in the early 1940s to describe the Truman administration.

According to the book Throw Them All Out by Peter Schweizer, in 1946 Arthur Krock wrote in The New York Times about President Truman’s connections to the Kansas City political machine, saying, “the Missouri flavor is strong around the White House itself ... and this has led to talk of government by crony.”

Another journalist, Walter Lippmann, used the word cronyism in The New York Times, again to describe the Truman administration, in 1952, bemoaning, “the amount of politically entrenched bureaucracy that has earned Mr. Truman’s regime its sorry reputation for corruption, cronyism, extravagance, waste, and confusion.” And you can really see the word cronyism take off in use after that date. It did also catch on in British English, but it seemed to take a few decades, starting to rise in the 1980s.

What is crony capitalism?

Also in the 1980s, people started talking about “crony capitalism," which is a form of corruption in which the government shows a lot of favoritism by determining which businesses get perks like tax breaks and permits. The magazine The Economist even created a crony capitalism index in 2014 to rank countries according to how much of this type of corruption they have. (Note: I can’t find any indication that The Economist published this index after 2016.)

How do people use the word crony?

To see more about how people use the word crony, I used a search engine called Netspeak that helps you find words that appear together, and it shows that one of the most common phrases is “old crony,” and that makes sense since often a crony is a buddy or friend from when you were in school or at least someone you’ve known for a long time.

And it also shows that the word is now common in the political realm because other common phrases are “Bush crony,” “Clinton crony,” and “political crony.” (I suspect this database doesn’t include text from the last decade or we’d see the names of other major politicians, too.)

In a further extension from corruption to outright criminal activity, you also occasionally see people use the word cronies to describe partners in crime or accomplices. For example, in 2019, there was an article in The Telegraph with the headline “My Brief but Terrifying Encounter With Pablo Escobar’s Cronies.”

Is crony related to crone?

Finally, the phrase “old crony” made me think of the phrase “old crone,” and I wondered whether crone has the same root since it refers to an old woman, but nope—it doesn’t.

The editors at the Oxford English Dictionary must have wondered the same thing because the etymology for crony actually says “no connection with crone has been traced.”

Instead, according to Etymonline, crone comes from the same root as carrion, which in Old French was also used to describe an old sheep.

Context matters when using the word crony

A crony was originally an old friend, but the word came to mean someone who gets favors because of whom they know instead of becoming successful on their own merits, and the change in meaning seems to be tied to criticism of United States president Harry Truman and his administration.

You can still use the word crony to simply describe an old friend, especially someone you hung out with a lot when you were young or in school. For example, you might say, “I’m not going home for Thanksgiving this year, and I am going to miss seeing all my old high school cronies.” But be sure the context makes your meaning clear since crony can also be used to describe people who don’t deserve their position or status.

A version of this article was originally published on Quick and Dirty Tips as "What Is a Crony?" Read more from Quick and Dirty Tips.

About the author

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing. She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on The Oprah Winfrey Show and The Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.