This guest post was written by Hossam Abouzahr, the man behind The Living Arabic Project (www.livingarabic.com), a compilation of multiple dialect and Fusha dictionaries that contains the largest Egyptian dialect dictionary and (what will hopefully soon be) the largest Levantine dialect dictionary. A half-breed (Arab-American), he found out that Arabic is actually beautiful after escaping from Arabic classes and meeting cool teachers who introduced him to the fun side of the language.
Anis Freyha, the famous Lebanese linguist and professor of Semitic languages, wrote that he actually planned to make his dictionary of Lebanese colloquial dictionary, معجم ألفاظ العامية اللبنانية., English – Arabic, but then felt that it was important for Arabs to know the origin of their language, and made it Arabic – Arabic instead. I’m translating his dictionary now for The Living Arabic Project, and what I’ve noticed is that at times the dictionary focuses more on the origin of the words than it is about their meanings.
The origin of words shows how languages are interconnected, and how they’ve come together to form what are the present-day Arabic dialects. While beautiful in and of itself, word origins are also practical. They help learners tie words together and place them in social and historical contexts, making language learning easier and more fun.
To prove my point, here are some words that you probably won’t forget after reading about their origins, and you might also learn something about history and Arab cultures in the process.
شَرْمُوطة، ج شَرامِيط.
Origin: From the French “charmante,” meaning lovely, charming. French soldiers used the word during the French occupation to refer to escorts and prostitutes, or the lovely women who responded to their needs.
Origin: Though commonly thought to simply be the plural of the word فِلْفِل, meaning pepper, there is a another camp that claims that it is Coptic in origin. No, this is not just an Egyptian consipiracy to steal Falafel from the Lebanese. The argument is that in Coptic, the three words fa-la-fel mean “of many beans.” Coptic Christians invented Falafel as a substitute for meat during fasts. Whatever the origin, it sure is tasty, especially when obtained from a dirty, greasy دكان — in fact, the dirty the tastier.
Meaning: dick-ish, dick-like
Origin: From the base word أَيْر, which means dick, or as Lisan al-Arab defines it, “one of the crudest words for the penis.” أير actually comes from the Greek “eros,” but here the Levant folk improved on it. مْؤَيَّر commonly means “dickish,” but is probably literally translated as “one turned into a dick.” This is mainly a Levant word, and generally Egyptians won’t know it. I once had to define it for an Egyptian professor, much to her horror, and told her it means لقد جَعَلَ اللهُ منْهُ زُبًّا.
Meaning: boo!, and commonly used as peek-a-boo! With kids.
Origin: Coptic. I mainly wanted to include this word to point out that almost every Arab country and often even sub-regions has a different word for peek-a-boo. In Palestine I’ve heard بَقُّوْسِة, and in Lebanon دَقَّانِة. Children’s language, especially rhymes, tends to preserve ancient words.
Meaning: Kushari, that wonderful Egyptian street food consisting of noodles, rice, beans, lentils, fried onions, and sauce (and sometimes other random things depending on the region).
Origin: It’s actually from Hindi, from the word “kitchiri.” The meal is quite different in India and Pakistan, where it tends to consist of rice cooked in broth with some meat and a شوربة added on top. Kushari probably came to Egypt from India through the British during the 1800s. For the British soldiers, this would have been not only a tasty and cheap food, but also a safe food. The noodles that are added to it in Egypt are probably from an Italian influence.
Meaning: Pimp (commonly used as an insult)
Origin: Supposedly this was the name of an official position in the Egyptian Ministry of Interior during the English occupation. At that time, prostitution was legal, and the عَرْص was the police officer who was responsible for conducting patrols and ensuring that prostitutes had their licenses in order. It now is now commonly used as an insult in most Arab countries.
Origin: 100% Arabic – not all fun words have to come from another language. تَبْصِيرة is from the root صبر, meaning patience, because تصبيرة gives you the patience to wait for the main meal. Although this is entirely proper Arabic in its pronunciation and derivation, it is only used in Egyptian colloquial.
According to Oxford’s English dictionary, the English word sahlep is of Arabic origin, from خَصْيَتَيْ الثَعْلَب, meaning the fox’s testicles. It was actually the name of the orchid from which sahlep is made. The word ثعلب probably entered into the Levant area and what is now modern Turkey, where many languages don’t have a th sound and transform it into a t or s sound. Then along the way the ع became a ح (since the ح is simply the unvoiced form of the ع). The final “p” in English might be from the Turkish influence, where many voiced consonants, when they are the final letter of a word, become unvoiced. For instance, the word طالِب becomes Talip in Turkish.
حَمْرَن / اِسْتَحْمَر
Meaning: to act like a donkey / ass
Origin: 100% Arabic, from the word حمار (donkey). Although completely Arabic, and the derivation rules that they follow are also perfectly good Fusha, these words are only used in colloquials (حمرن being Lebanese, and استحمر being more Egyptian but broadly understood across the Arab countries).
Meaning: to be rebellious, recalcitrant.
This word, being Fusha, is actually from the shared Semitic root م ر د .The root may be tied to the name Nimrod (نمرود), known in the Bible for disobeying God and being oppressive. In the Levant dialects, the word تْنَمْرَد is used to mean to act like a tyrant (although in Egyptian, according to Badawi and Hinds’ dictionary, it means to make worldly wise).
Meaning: to puncture
Origin: Probably from the English puncture. In the Levant countries you can go to the بَنْشَرْجِي to get your tires repaired. Here you can see how the Turkish جِي is added to an English word to form a purely Arabic creation.
Meaning: common gecko
Origin: the phrase is probably from the folk belief that the gecko causes a skin disease (either vitiligo or leprosy, depending on who you ask). بوبْرَيْص is the Lebanese pronunciation of أبو بَرَص, the father of leprosy.
Origin: This is the plural of the word مَصْرِيَّة. Under the Ottoman empire, the Levant area used the currency known as the عُثْمانِي. When the Empire was broken up after World War I, the عُثْمانِي was replaced by the Egyptian Guinea, الجنية المصرية, which was shortened to مصرية. The plural is now commonly used in the Levant countries to mean money, even though the currency is now the لِيْرة. On a few rare occasions one might still hear the singular used, but this is not common.
Meaning: to fart
Origin: I don’t know the origin of the word, but the root طز is quite useful for referring to the ass or things that come out of it. طيز means ass (I still remember my wife’s Arabic teacher getting mad at her for using it instead of مؤخرة , which is the more polite word for the rear). طَزطَز means to do many farts. Across the Arab countries one can hear the phrase طُز في, often translated as “to hell with…” The word طَوْبَز, used in Lebanon, is probably also from this root. طوبز means to behind over so the ass is exposed, and can be used to mean to bend over and fart or to bend over and get shafted.
As obnoxious as I was with my word choices, I hope you do actually remember these words. Studying word origins shows the richness of the languages and the history that has developed them. Many Levant words are derived from or shared with Hebrew, Syriac, and Aramaic. Studying word origins also shows the linkages between the Arabic dialects and the strange divergences that occur between them (the brave amongst you can search for the root قلط in the Egyptian and Levantine dictionaries on the Living Arabic Project). Arabic, in its full complexity, is rich and deep, but only by exploring it will you really find it enjoyable.