What to Call Who, When, and How To Be Polite While Doing So

I’m absolutely certain that you, dear non-native Arabic speaker currently located in Cairo, want no part in anything that could jeopardize the delicate, spotless reputation that foreigners living in Egypt have worked so hard to maintain over the years. In the spirit of this sentiment, TeamMaha has compiled the following brief guide to commonly used titles in Egypt to help smooth out your day-to-day interactions with the population of om al-dunya.

Note that this list is by no means exhaustive; feel free to leave additions or suggestions in the comments section and I’ll adjust the post accordingly.

باشا basha – Originally a Turkish term used in reference to high-ranking political officials under the Ottoman empire, the word is now usually used by people working in the service industry and/or serving you in some way as a means to address you respectfully. This is most often used when speaking with men, but I’ve been called basha once or twice, and each time it was fantastic.

بي bey (bae?) – Similar to basha, above. Not much of a difference in usage as far as I can tell, although this was distinct from a basha back in the Ottoman days.

ريس rayes – Corrupted ammiya form of رئيس which literally means ‘President’ – here the meaning is closer to ‘boss’ (as in, you got it boss!); otherwise indistinguishable from basha and bey to my ears in terms of use.

فندم fendem – This one usually appears when you’re speaking to someone and didn’t hear something they said, but want to appear respectful: يا فندم؟ means something like ‘Sorry, come again?’ Also–you guessed it!–Turkish.

باشامهندس  bashamohandes A term of respect for engineers, which is a highly regarded career path in Egypt. Combination of basha + the word for ‘engineer’–a two-for-one title, if you will.

اوسطى osta – This is usually used when speaking to taxi/bus drivers, but an amiya teacher once told me its for anyone who works with their hands. When you want to get out of a taxi, you can say على جمب يا اوسطى (ala gemb yaosta – note that the ‘ya’ and ‘osta’ tend to kind of meld together).

برنس brins – aka, ‘prince’ in a super Egyptian accent. Usually comes out when someone has done something of note and the speaker wants to express his approval, or when greeting a good friend.

حاج\حاجة hag\haga – Title of respect used for the elderly, associated with the expectation that a Muslim who has gotten on in their years will have made the Hajj pilgrimage to Mecca at least once. Use copiously and #respectyourelders.

أستاذ ustaz – Literally means ‘teacher’ and is similar to basha, but can be used as a title before someone’s name; for example, if I’m ordering food on the phone and the company has my name recorded in their database, they may ask if ‘ustaza Caitlyn’ is calling, to be polite. This is also used more often for women in place of basha.

آنسة anisa – Used for young women, and implies that they’re unmarried, if I’m not mistaken. The shami equivalent is صبايا.

حضرتك hadrtak/hadrtek – Not as much a title, but if you speak Spanish, it operates a bit like ‘Usted’–its a polite form of ‘you.’ So if you’re talking to your friend’s mom or a teacher, for example, you might say ازاي حضرتك instead of the more informal ازايك. When addressing a police officer–most often a situation in which you most likely want to be the politest of polite–you can call him/her حضرت الضابط.

6 comments

  1. I’ve heard people calling police and military officers “basha” as a genuine term of respect also.
    There’s also the all purpose “Ya 3am”, usually with people you know or someone who’s annoying you.
    “Ya ragel!?” as a term of surprise is pretty great too.

    1. Ya 3my / yabny / ya sha2e2 / ya negm and so on will get their own post soon. Ya ragel is a good one that I definitely need to be using more.

  2. I’ve been told that the respectful way to address an elderly Christian person is to call him/her mo2ades/a (مقدس/ة). Similar to “hag”, it’s a person who made a pilgrimage to Jerusalem (القدس), but also literally means “blessed person”. I doubt there are old Christian men who’d become belligerent if called “hag,” but you might make their day if you call them by the proper term. :)

  3. I want to say that the formal spelling of the female pilgrim drops the alif: حجة but I am not sure. It could theoretically help cut down on confusion in written Egyptian dialect! Is it كل حاجة or كل حجة? Not sure when you’d be talking about every female pilgrim, but you never know.

    1. FYI I ran across this in a Jordanian novel, so the potential for a typo might be most likely. It would certainly be a grammatical anomaly.

      1. yeah in shami I think it’s 7ajj/7ajje as well not 7aajj 7aajje as you might expect. I think in Egyptian there’s a consistent-ish rule that before two consonants a long vowel becomes short – which is why all the feminine participles are like 3arfa not 3aarfa. Whether somebody spells it حج or حاج probably depends on how keen they are on spelling things like fusha?

        btw, انسة is used in Shami as well as a polite term of address – يا صبايا is the plural of صبية, and you can say يا صبية or يا صبايا, but it’s less polite I think than يا انسة, which is the normal way of saying ‘miss’. In Syrian and Lebanese there’s also يا خانم yaa khaanom which is I think originally Turkish (surprise!) or Persian and which is similar, if a bit less polite than يا انسة.

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