7 English Words that Come from Arabic
  • 3-minute read
  • 24th May 2020

7 English Words that Come from Arabic

To mark Eid al-Fitr and the end of the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, we asked our proofreaders to look at how Arabic has influenced the English language. There are, of course, many English words that come from other languages, but how many of these terms did you know had origins in Arabic?

1. Zero

Zero (0) is a number equal to nothing:

We will count down from ten to zero.

The word “zero” comes from the Arabic sifr, meaning “empty” or “nothing.” Fibonacci, a thirteenth-century Italian mathematician introduced the concept of “zero” to Europe when he returned from studying in North Africa.

2. Safari

A safari is an overland trip to see and photograph wild animals:

They went on safari in Kenya.

The Swahili speakers of East Africa gave English this word, which means “an expedition” and comes from the Arabic word for “journey” (safar).

A safari in Sri Lanka.
A safari in Sri Lanka.
(Photo: Amila Tennakoon/flickr)

3. Sofa

“Sofa” is another word for “couch” (primarily used in UK English):

They sat down on the sofa to watch a movie.

The word “sofa” came to English from Turkish, where it refers to a raised section of a floor covered with carpets and cushions. The Turks got the word from the Arabic suffah, which means “a ledge or bench made of stone or wood.” Not quite the same as a modern couch, but still good for sitting!

4. Coffee

Coffee is a hot drink made from bean-like seeds:

Do you drink coffee in the mornings?

Arab traders brought coffee to Arabia from East Africa and called it kahwah. They shared it with their neighbors, the Ottoman Empire, who called it kahveh, and from there the Turks shared it with the world.

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Some etymologists tell us that “coffee” came to English via the Dutch koffie, while others say it came via the Italian caffè.

5. Sugar

Sugar is a sweet substance made from sugar cane or sugar beets:

Do you take sugar in your coffee?

As was the case with coffee, Arab traders were important in the spread of sugar in Europe. English gets the word via the French sucre and the Latin succarum, which comes from the Arabic sukkar.

6. Cotton

Cotton is a thread or cloth made from the fibers of the cotton plant:

She looked pretty in a simple cotton dress.

Early Arab traders introduced Indian cotton to Europe along with the Arabic word qutn, which is where the English term comes from.

7. Algebra

Algebra is a form of mathematics in which letters and other symbols are used to represent numbers:

The student struggled with her algebra homework.

The word “algebra” comes from al-jabr, meaning “a reunion of broken parts,” which referred to the setting of broken bones until a ninth-century Arabic book changed the meaning of the term. The author of the book was al-Khwarizmi, whose name gives us another mathematical term: “algorithm.”

Other English words that start with “al-” have origins in Arabic, including “alchemy,” “alcove,” and “almanac.” This is because “al-” is a common prefix in Arabic, serving as a definite article (like the English word “the”).

If you have a favorite English word with Arabic origins that we’ve missed here, why not let us know in the comments? And if you have any documents that need proofreading, we’re always here to help.

Comments (1)
Tom
26th May 2020 at 05:26
Admiral from Amir al bahr which means Prince of the Sea.

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