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UN Arabic Language Day

Who knew that the 18th of December was international Arabic Language Day? We set our token white boy the challenge of finding out how Arabic has infiltrated English. Conor Sheils succeeds in finding 10 everyday words originating from the Arab world.

Staff Writer

UN Arabic Language Day

To paraphrase US soul legend, Edwin Starr, Arabic (huh, good god), what is it good for – quite a lot actually. Today is the UN’s Arabic Language day – a day when most CairoScene readers should remember that they are in fact, neither American nor British and perhaps speak their 'uncool' mother tongue instead.

As a foreigner in Egypt, Arabic is a tough one to learn particularly when weekdays consist of a mish-mash of delightfully posh public school English and any attempt to socialise at weekends sees one surrounded by a sea of accents which wouldn't sound out of place on American Idol. However, I'm reliably informed that outside of 'the bubble' most Cairenes from Attaba to Al-Marg (apparently these places exist) still speak a little known dialect, Arabic.

After a little digging, I found that the world has quite a lot to thank the Middle East's language of choice for, including – believe it or not – some phrases stolen from the Arab world and bastardised by the West (I know, so unlike us, right?).

Here's a helpful list of words, used in English, pillaged from the Middle East:

Alcohol – In an odd twist, the demon drink, the scourge of religious hardliners everywhere has come straight out of the Kasbah. Admittedly, we didn't get too imaginative when transferring the word 'al-kohl', which entered the English dictionary in the 1700s.

Giraffe – No we're not 'having a giraffe' – the word for nature's tallest animal, so beloved of the Egyptian public – ya, know, when they aren't scaring them to death at Giza Zoo, comes from the Arabic ‘zarafa’ – the earliest use of the word comes from the 13th century when a couple of giraffes were brought to Italy from a zoo in Cairo. So that's where they all went....

Sofa – From the Arabic word 'soffa' – which pretty much means the same thing; rugs, cushions and comfortable seating. We've been using it for hundreds of years now, and err...sofa so good...

Spinach – Hated by everyone, spinach comes from the word  isbinākh in Andalusian Arabic, and إisfānākhin Eastern classical Arabic. Either way it sucks.

Massage – Whether a relaxing spa break or a dodgy evening spent creeping around Soho in your best rainmac,  the word massage comes from the Arabic word 'elmass' to touch. We stole it from the French (hey, they stole it from you guys first...) but don't worry, they've gotten over it...a happy ending.

Apricot – A fruit, kind of popular, I suppose.....comes from ‘al-barqūq.’

Jumper – A recent addition to many a Cairo wardrobe thanks to climate change and the fact it fucking snowed....the jumper (immortalised in an 80s song by Irish group Sultans of Ping), comes from the Arabic word 'jubba'.

Ghoul – Comes from the Arabic word ‘ghul’ – Spooky? No, you're right, it isn't.

Jedi – A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away – somebody translated the Islamic term for mystic warrior and took it to Hollywood – removing all of that pesky religion of course – and repackaging the concept in the form of a cuddle space creature. 

Hashish – Yes, that's right; for centuries you delightful Middle Eastern types have been physically and linguistically providing drug addled westerners with everyone’s favourite 'gateway drug'...munchies, memory loss and the motivational skills of a snail – thanks, thanks a, what was I saying?