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.

Meaning: Whore

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.

 

فَلافِل

Meaning: Falafel

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.

 

مْؤَيَّر

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.

 

بِخّ

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.

 

كُشَرِي

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.

 

عَرْص

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.

 

تَبْصِيْرَة

Meaning: snack

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.

 

سَحْلَب

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).

 

مَرَدَ

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).

 

بَنْشَر

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.

 

بُوْبْرَيْص

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.

 

مَصَأري

Meaning: Money

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.

 

طز

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.

I’m going to posit that بتاع – ‘thingy, thingamajig, whatever’ – is one of the most important words in Egyptian Arabic. It has several flexible grammatical uses and is thrown around constantly; the word is especially important for Arabic learners because you can expand your vocabulary tenfold by just replacing words you don’t know with this convenient linguistic evasion. Yes, it is a cop out, but whatthefuckever! Egyptians use it copiously anyways and you’ll fit right in. Anyways. How it works:

 

The word بتاع can be used both as a noun, and as a particle.

As a noun, بتاع replaces the name of an object you’re too lazy to remember the name of; hence, ‘thingy.’

[pointing to something]: هات البتاع دا – Give me the thingamajig.

هاخلص البتاع واجيلك – I’m going to finish the thing and come to you.

جربت بتاع التكيلا مبارح؟ – Did you try the tequila thingy yesterday?

انا هنجوفر فشخ عشان البتاع دا – I’m super fucking hungover because of that thing. (note: if anyone knows a word for hangover in colloquial Arabic other than the English, get at me. I am so curious.)

 

As a particle, بتاع \ بتاعة expresses ownership. The gender of بتاع matches the gender of the object being described, and you stick the pronoun indicating who the object belongs to onto the end of the word, much as you would with عند.

الموبايل دا بتاع ابو شنب دا ولا بتاع مين؟ – Does this phone belong to that guy with the moustache, or who?

.الشنطة دي بتاعتي, شكرا – This bag is mine, thank you.

 

In a more abstract sense, you can use بتاع to express a person’s inclinations or something they do often. For example:

الراجل بتاع النظافة- The cleaning guy

 

It can also be used as a filler word meaning something close to ‘whatever/and so on’:

قالتلي انا مش عايزة اضيقك وبتاع – She said, ‘I don’t want to upset you,’ and whatever…

A synonym for this would be مش عارف ايه, which is often combined with بتاع in a series like so:

قالي النهارده لازم تنظف الاوضة وتلم الزبالة ومش عارف ايه وبتاع – He told me today, you need to clean the room, pick up the trash, yada yada yada…

 

Finally, بتاع can also be a euphemism for a penis (just like ‘thingy’ in English – epiphany ooooooh ahhhhh!) and thus طلّع البتاع = to whip it out.

And please, dear reader, don’t ever say the above out loud in real life – it’s just kind of an FYI thing. Although I genuinely hope you’re never in a situation where there is surprise whipping out involved and this expression comes up.

Both Levantine and Egyptian dialects are filled with phrases and idioms that reference food, and in some cases, the word used to describe a certain food item can have an entirely different meaning in other contexts. Because it is understandably confusing the first time you hear a person’s sleeping patterns compared to a dead, fermented fish, we’ve compiled some of the most common food words/phrases in both dialects here.

كوسة – kosa: Egyptian

You’ll probably recognize this word as describing a zucchini (or ‘courgette’ for our British friends), but in Egyptian dialect, kosa can also refer to useful personal connections (or وسطة – wasta) you have. In practical terms, if you have enough kosa/wasta at Mogamma El Tahrir, you can get yourself a longer visa extension or even avoid waiting in the stamp line entirely, saving yourself hours of misery in your own personal hell.

بتنجان – baatengan: Egyptian

بتنجان is the Egyptian version of باذنجان, the MSA word for eggplant. However, a baatengan can also mean a bullshit excuse or explanation. If you’re trying to convince your friend to skip an obligation for example, you could press them to come up with اي بتنجان (any old excuse) to get out of it.

عنب – ‘enab: Egyptian

This literally means ‘grapes,’ but my soccer (football?) coach always says it when I’m doing something right (which, unfortunately, is not very often).

زبيب – zabib: Egyptian

In the kitchen, a zabib is a raisin, but it is also the term used to describe the greyish blackish bump you find on some Muslims’ foreheads (apparently in English this is called a ‘prayer bump,’ which is a significantly lamer term, in my opinion). It is basically developed from lots of praying, but can also be a sign of insulin resistance, fun fact.

In Syria, this is rather more blandly called الطبعة السودا ‘the black imprint’. Cultivating it was apparently never as popular a fashion in Syria, though.

 

A man with a gnarly beard and zabib.

A man with a gnarly beard and zabib.

عوجا – ‪3ooja: Syrian

This is a pretty obscure kind of Levantine finger food which is apparently a kind of green almond (?) soaked in water. Some people pronounce it 3ooje (and probably spell it عوجة). Apparently along with kuusa (less often), Syrians use this to describe chaos or mess: الدنيا عوجا. This is probably related to the word a3waj ‘bent’ (whose feminine is 3ooja too), maybe from the plant that it grows on, I don’t know.

بطيخ baTTiikh: Syrian and Egyptian

Used to call someone an idiot in a way that isn’t swearing but is nonetheless kind of offensive: yaa baTTiikh! To be fair, watermelons don’t have particularly developed cognitive skills.

Relatedly, in Syria: لا… ولا بطيخة laa… wala baTTiikha ‘neither… nor a watermelon’ means ‘neither X nor anything else!’ For example, if somebody calls you his 7abiibti, you might respond laa 7abiibtak wala baTTiikha!

ما حدا بقول عن زيته عكر maa 7ada bi2uul 3an zeeto 3éker: Syrian

Literally ‘nobody says their olive oil isn’t pure!’ There are apparently lots of local variations, including maa 7ada bi2uul labano 7aamiD ‘nobody says their laban is sour’. This expression means something like ‘nobody says that stuff they’ve produced is bad’, and is usually used to demonstrate somebody’s honesty when they’re saying bad things about projects they were personally involved in – I believe what he’s saying, because nobody would say their own oil wasn’t pure unless it wasn’t!

مهبر méhber: Syrian

From la7@m habra ‘high quality (red) meat’ or ‘de-boned meat’. Someone who is méhber (maybe this means that he only eats red meat?) is rich.

بله وشراب ميته béllo w shraab mayyto: Syrian and Egyptian

In Egyptian, bellha wishrab mayyitha

‘Wet it and drink its water!’ There used to be an amazing video from an Egyptian talk show demonstrating exactly what this meant, but it seems to have been taken down. It means ‘forget about it’, ‘it doesn’t matter’ or – with the right context, I guess – ‘you can take that idea and stick it up your arse!’

(OK perhaps this one only marginally counts as food but whatever, billo wshraab mayyto imo)

خبز وملح khébz w mél@7: Syrian

‘Bread and salt’. Usually used in the expression في بيناتنا خبز وملح fii beenaatna khébz w mél@7 ‘there’s bread and salt between us’. This means that you owe the other guy some loyalty because you’ve eaten together! I guess this was originally a reference to hospitality norms, but now it often means ‘we’re friends’ or ‘we know one another’. I might’ve done you a favour, but don’t mention it – there’s bread and salt between us!

Continuing in the spirit of Chris’ last post, here is another joke — which is in pretty bad taste, I might add — about engagement/marriage from the Internet. It’s not as full of useful vocabulary as the last one, but it is certainly amusing:

انا جاي اطلب ايد بنتك يا حج
بس يابنى دى لسا بالمدرسة
خلاص اجى بالليل تكون جت

I’ve come to ask for your daughter’s hand, Hagg.
Son, she’s still in school!
Alright, I’ll come back at night when she’s here.

حج – Check here for an explanation of this title.
جاي – Remember our dear friend ism fa3el? This formation more literally means ‘I am a comer’ and is made feminine by adding a ta marbuta (أنا جاية).
دي – In reference to the daughter.
يابني – ya + ibny, but in terms of pronunciation, the phrase usually gets smushed together into something that sounds more like ‘yabny.’
لسا – We covered this useful little word here a while back (scroll about halfway down).
خلاص – Can mean 8,000 different things, ranging from ‘That’s enough!’ to ‘Okay!’ to a very reluctant and angry ‘FINE!’. If you don’t know this word yet, or its accompanying hand motions, you’re doing it wrong.
تكون جت – More precisely she will have come back’ – despite the lack of a ه to indicate the future, given the context of the sentence, this is Egyptian colloquial’s version of the future perfect tense.
~Insert intellectual comment about the phenomenon of child marriage in Egypt here~

The other day I stumbled upon a commercial so masterfully stuffed with euphemisms that I had to write about it on the internet. It’s about a guy named بدري (“Early”) who has an issue that affects both him and his ladyfriend. I’ve written out a transcription & translation of the commercial and discussed a few useful words in Egyptian Arabic at the end of the post so you all can have a productive laugh. Also, anyone with insight as to why a man appears on the back of the motorcycle in a fuzzy animal costume around 0:15 gets five gold stars.

 

Transcription & Translation:

بصي يا فتحية انا لمعتلك المكنة, ومليت التنك, وهنتفسح النهارده طول اليوم

Look Fatheya, I polished the machine for you and filled the tank, so we’re going to go out and have fun all day!

!يااااا دا انا من زمان نفسي اتفسح

Wow, I’ve wanted to go out and have fun for a long time!

وأنا كمان. يلا اركبي يلا يلا

Me too! Come on, get on, come on come on!

انت على طول كدا مستعجل…يا بدري هو انا لحقت اركب؟؟

You’re always in such a hurry…Badry, did I even get on?!

ولا يهمك, الحل في الهرم

It’s alright! The solution is Haram.

مع الهرم, بدري بطل يجي بدري

With Haram, Badry stopped coming early. (Literally. This is literally what the video says.)

استشر طبيب أو صيدلي على الدواء المخصص لعلاج سرعة القذف

Consult a doctor or pharmacist on medicine specialized for treating early ejaculation.

 

Useful words:

لمّع – The word يلمع, without the shadda, means ‘to shine.’ So the causative form II used in the video means ‘to make shine’ or polish. Hence لمعتلك المكنة = I made the machine shine for you.

يتفسح – This word is often used to talk about travelling and generally being out and about and having fun. Someone out there might have a better English translation for this word than the one I used, but I don’t think it really has a one word equivalent in English.

ياااا — An extended يااااااااا is often used to express surprise in Egyptian. Alternatively: يووووووووووو, always said with the same down-up-down intonation.

نفسي –This is a stronger way to say ‘I want’ than عايز, usually meaning something closer to ‘I desire’ or ‘I’ve always wanted to…’

لحق –This is a verb used most often in the context of ‘making’ a train or bus, for example. So هتعرف تلحق would mean, ‘Will you be able to make it?’ Here Fatheya is saying she didn’t get the chance to get on…if you know what I mean (insert winky face here).

يركب — Literally means ‘to ride’ and used to describe getting in a car, the metro, or a bus: ركبنا المترو مش تكس = We rode the metro, not a taxi.

ولا يهمك is what you usually say when someone accidentally bumps into you and apologizes.

Watching TV in Arabic is a fantastic way to get more listening practice and generally improve your vocabulary and comprehension, and I highly suggest all Arabic learners do this during their down time whenever possible. But when you get sick of that, or when there’s nothing to watch except Saudi men practicing falconry and Amr Adeeb flailing his arms about / having his weekly heart attack on air, you’ll inevitably find yourself flipping over to an English language movie. And I’m here to tell you how to make this experience quadruple the fun: pay attention to the subtitles.

This guy.

This guy. Amirite?

There are two things you’ll notice watching foreign films, especially those shown by MBC, which happens to be Saudi-owned: very obviously censored kissing scenes and highly suspect translations. In reality most channels have their own issues in this regard, like Mazzika, which made the questionable (yet also fantastic) decision to provide lyrics translations for all the music videos it shows–in Ke$ha’s Timber (خشب) “It’s going down,” is translated انها سوف تسقط while Alicia Keys’ This girl is on fire becomes هذه الفتاة متحمسة جدا (lit. ‘This girl is very excited.’) The salacious line ‘She say she love my lolly’ from Maejor Ali’s Lolly video is rendered simply انها تحبني كثيرا (lit. ‘She loves me very much’). In short, you have stumbled upon a pure gold mine of Fusha fails.

In terms of MBC subtitling, the sentence ‘He’s gay’ is consistently translated to انه غريب الاطوار (roughly ‘He’s whimsical/eccentric’) despite the fact that a word (مثلي) does, in fact, exist to express this concept in Modern Standard Arabic. The word girlfriend is expressed through the flat صديقة while “Wanna make out?” is butchered into هل تريدين الاستمتاع؟ (lit. ‘Do you want to enjoy?’), which, let’s be real, sounds way more sexual than the original.

And the colorful spectrum of English swears–every single permutation of inappropriate speech you could think of–is reduced to one of two options: تبا لك (screw you) and اللعنة عليك (‘damn you.’ Google translate also purports this to mean ‘by gosh!’).

In this way, taking care to read the subtitles while consuming foreign media in Egypt becomes an exercise in critiquing translations of cultural concepts that are fraught with controversy (romantic relationships before marriage, sexuality, even swearing). Fusha, in my opinion, will never be capable of accurately transmitting the gist of colloquial speech in any language, a sampling of its failings detailed above. Instead of carrying out its intended purpose–actually, you know, translating the text–the use of Modern Standard Arabic to subtitle foreign films and music ends up providing another unintentional layer of entertainment on top of your regularly scheduled program. And I guess that may not be such a terrible thing after all.

 

ضحك علي

“da7ak alaya”

This phrase literally means “he laughed at me” but in practice translates roughly to “he screwed me over,” as in I was charged too much money for something. One of the most apt phrases I have personally encountered on my Arabic journey–you KNOW that guy let out an extended cackle of sweet satisfaction as your sorry khawaga ass trudged away out of sight.