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

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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.”

What's the Difference Between Stuffing and Dressing?

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iStock

For carbohydrate lovers, nothing completes a Thanksgiving meal quite like stuffing—shovelfuls of bread, celery, mushrooms, and other ingredients that complement all of that turkey protein.

Some people don’t say stuffing, though. They say dressing. In these calamitous times, knowing how to properly refer to the giant glob of insulin-spiking bread seems necessary. So what's the difference?

Let’s dismiss one theory off the bat: Dressing and stuffing do not correlate with how the side dish is prepared. A turkey can be stuffed with dressing, and stuffing can be served in a casserole dish. Whether it’s ever seen the inside of a bird is irrelevant, and anyone who tells you otherwise is wrong and should be met with suspicion, if not outright derision.

The terms are actually separated due to regional dialects. Dressing seems to be the favored descriptor for southern states like Mississippi, Tennessee, South Carolina, and Georgia, while stuffing is preferred by Maine, New York, and other northern areas. (Some parts of Pennsylvania call it filling, which is a bit too on the nose, but to each their own.)

If stuffing stemmed from the common practice of filling a turkey with carbs, why the division? According to HuffPost, it may have been because Southerners considered the word stuffing impolite, and therefore never embraced it.

While you should experience no material difference in asking for stuffing or dressing, when visiting relatives it might be helpful to keep to their regionally-preferred word to avoid confusion. Enjoy stuffing yourselves.

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What’s the Difference Between Forests, Woods, and Jungles?

Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images
Jui-Chi Chan/iStock via Getty Images

If you're an English speaker, there’s a good chance you often use the words woods, forest, and jungle correctly without even thinking about it. Even if a patch of trees takes up a significant portion of your backyard, you probably wouldn’t consider it a forest; and you wouldn’t talk about the beautiful fall foliage in New England’s jungles. Based on those examples, it seems like woods are smaller than forests, and jungles aren’t found in colder climates. This isn’t wrong—but there's more to it than that.

According to Merriam-Webster, a forest is “a dense growth of trees and underbrush covering a large tract,” while woods are “a dense growth of trees usually greater in extent than a grove and smaller than a forest.” The reason we consider forests to be larger than woods dates back to the Norman rule of Great Britain in 1066, when a forest was a plot of land owned by the Crown that was large enough to accommodate game for royal hunting parties. Whether that land contained trees or not was essentially irrelevant.

These days, scientists and land managers definitely consider the presence of trees necessary for land to be classified as a forest. To set it apart from woods, or woodland, it usually has to meet certain density qualifications, which are different depending on whom you ask.

According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), a forest must cover about 1.24 acres of land, and its canopy cover—the amount of land covered by the treetops—must exceed 10 percent of the acreage [PDF]. “Other wooded land” must also span about 1.24 acres, but its canopy cover is between 5 and 10 percent. In a nutshell, the FAO thinks forests and woods are the same size, but forests are more dense than woods. Australia, on the other hand, employs plant ecologist Raymond Specht’s classification system for its vegetation, in which any tree-populated land with less than 30 percent canopy cover is a woodland, and anything more dense than that is a forest.

Unlike forests, jungles don’t have specific scientific classifications, because the word jungle isn’t really used by scientists. According to Sciencing, it’s a colloquial term that usually denotes what scientists refer to as tropical forests.

Tropical forests are located around the Equator and have the highest species diversity per area in the world. Since they’re so densely populated with flora and fauna, it makes sense that both Merriam-Webster and the Encyclopedia Britannica describe jungles as “tangled” and “impenetrable.” They’re bursting with millions of plants and animals that are different from what we see in temperate and boreal forests to the north.

Because most of us aren’t in the habit of clarifying which type of forest we’re talking about in casual conversation, it’s no surprise that we often refer to the temperate forests we see in our own climate simply as forests, which we differentiate from those rich, overgrown tropical territories to the south by calling them jungles.

To summarize, forests are historically and colloquially considered to be larger than woods, and scientifically considered to be more dense. Jungles are technically forests, too, since jungle is a casual word for what scientists call a tropical forest.

And, all differences aside, it’s relaxing to spend time in any of them—here are 11 scientific reasons why that’s true.

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