Over centuries, dozens of Arabic words have entered the English language, through science, philosophy, mathematics, food, fabrics, trade and travel.
Most were introduced by inland and maritime trade along the Silk Route, while others came through the Islamic conquests of southern Europe. Not all of these words are of Arabic origin – some came from India, Persia and ancient Greece – but Arab merchants helped export them to the West.
Finally, the discovery of medieval Islamic scientists and astronomers during the Renaissance brought new words and concepts to Europe. I have picked the top 15 most surprising words with Arabic origins.
Admiral: amir أمير
The word for this high-ranking naval commander evolved from amir, the Arabic word for a prince or ruler. The word was first documented on the island of Sicily in the 11th century, where the Arabs had ruled for 300 years.
Alchemy: al kimiya الكيمياء
The ancient branch of philosophy known as alchemy involved the study of substances and materials. Medieval alchemists believed that some liquids could be turned to gold, or a potion that would make its drinker immortal. The original Arabic word stems from the Greek term “khemeia“, though some scholars also trace its roots back to ancient Egypt.
Cotton: qutun قطن
Though cotton was known to the ancient Romans, the word and the fabric were imported by Arab merchants to Europe in the late Middle Ages.
Elixir: al-iksir الإكسير
Today, an elixir is a liquid remedy with healing powers. In Arabic, it originally referred to a dry powder for treating wounds. It was later adopted by alchemists who referred to an elixir as the elusive mineral powder that would turn metals into gold.
Jumper: jubba جبّة
The Arabic word for overcoat originally entered European languages as “juppa“, valuable silk clothing, in southern Italy in the 11th century.
Macrame: miqrama مقرمة
This type of knotted textile used in craft and high fashion originates from the hand-loomed fabrics of Arabic weavers. In Arabic, miqrama refers to an embroidered tapestry or bedspread.
Mohair: al-mokhayyar المخيّر
In Arabic, al-mokhayyar was a high-quality cloth made of fine goat hair. Various forms of it were imported to the West for centuries, the most famous being the wool made from Angora goats of Turkey.
Monsoon: mawsim موسم
Early Arab sea merchants on the Indian Ocean rim used the word “mawsim” or “seasons” to refer to the seasonal sailing winds. Later, the word was adopted by Portuguese, Dutch and English sailors as they navigated extreme weather conditions off the coasts of India, South-East Asia and China.
Muslin: musuliyin موصلي
Muslin, a cotton-based fabric, is said to have derived its name from the traders of the city of Mosul, or the musuliyin, who imported it from South Asia to Europe.
Nadir: nazir نظير
In English, a nadir refers to the worst moment, or the point at which something is of the least value. But in Arabic, the word means a counterpart, and was used in medieval Islamic astronomy to refer to the diametrically opposing points of a celestial sphere.
Orange: naranj نارنج
Though both the fruit and the word came from India, Arabs introduced oranges to the Mediterranean region. For many southern European countries today, they are considered a staple fruit.
Serendipity: serendib سرنديب
The ancient fairy tale place of Serendib, which appears in One Thousand and One Nights and other ancient oral traditions, was also the old Arabic name for the island of Sri Lanka. The English word serendipity, meaning a fortunate discovery, was coined by the English author Horace Walpole in 1754.
Safari: safar سفر
The English adopted the Swahili word for journey – safari – in the 19th century for their hunting expeditions in East Africa. Though a safari today involves an organized trip to spot wild animals, its origins are from the Arabic “safar”, or journey, a reminder of the crucial presence of Arab sea merchants on the East African coast.
Sugar: sukkar سكّر
Another word to have travelled the Silk Road is sugar, which was originally produced in India. By the sixth century, sugar cane cultivation reached Persia, and was brought into the Mediterranean by the Arabs, who produced it extensively.
Tariff: ta’riff تعريف
A tariff in Medieval Arabic means a notification. It was introduced to western languages around the 14th century through commerce on the Mediterranean Sea, where it referred to the bill of lading on a merchant ship, or the statement of products and prices for sale.