English words from Arabic
Mascara originated from the Arabic word "mask̲ara" which means "buffoon." Source: AFP

Over 1,500 years, the network of routes known as the Silk Road contributed to the exchange of goods and ideas among diverse cultures — but the path also saw the convergence of many languages.

Arab merchants and scholars travelling through the region spread the beauty of the Arabic language. It captivated strangers far and near, creeping their way into the English language — giving birth to many amazing and beautiful English words from Arabic. 

Since then, the language has played a significant role in various exchanges on the Silk Road, especially when it comes to interactions between scholars of the Muslim world. 

From the eighth century, Baghdad was one of the main centres for sciences and astronomy — Arabic became the main language of study in the fields of science.

First emerging in the northwest of the Arabian Peninsula, Arabic is a member of the Semitic family of languages, including Hebrew and Aramaic. 

Since Arabic was at the heart of scientific and cultural exchanges, it helped to spread the language along the Silk Roads and beyond. 

Today, it is the sixth most spoken language in the world, with 274 million speakers worldwide

What you may not know is that some of the borrowed English words from Arabic have become common in everyday usage. That said, little is known about their Arabic origins. 

English words from Arabic

At the beginning of her music career, Shakira started by singing in Arabic. Source: AFP

How many words in English are of Arabic origin?

As the official language in 67 countries, English is spoken by over 1.5 billion people and is extensively used in many prestigious universities worldwide.

It’s one of the most widely spoken languages in the world and the most influential. 

But it’s not growing on its own.

English is a language with a complicated history of borrowing words from various sources due to the influence of different cultures, conquests, trade, and globalisation.

The Global Language Monitor estimates that 800 to 1,000 new words are added to English dictionaries

The result? There is no such thing as pure English. It is the product of a fusion of various linguistic influences — with many of its loanwords coming from Latin, French, German, Hindi and more.

The vast amount of English words from Arabic comes from years of international trade, conquests, exploration and migration.

Historians and linguists suggest that the Spanish absorbed and began using Arabic words centuries ago when Moors occupied the Iberian Peninsula. This translation shift may have begun as early as the AD 700s.

Some examples of English words that were acquired either directly from Arabic or indirectly from Arabic words include “alchemy”, “alcohol,” “coffee”, and many more. 

The algebraic letter “x”, which represents an unknown number, originates from the Arabic word “shay” (thing), which was eventually translated to “xay” in Spain, leading to its final abbreviation and use in algebra as “x.”

Even the number system used today was introduced to Europeans by Arab merchants.

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, the mutual exchange of words between languages serves as a reminder of the beauty of how language evoldes.

English words from Arabic

The English word “coffee” has its origins in the Arabic word “qahwa.” Source: AFP


10 everyday English words from Arabic you’ve probably been using all your life but never knew

1. Coffee

In the US, coffee takes the top spot as the most consumed beverage, with a staggering 26,651,000 bags consumed in 2023

But did you know that this popular drink got its name from Arabic? The word “coffee” actually came from the Arabic word “qahwah,” which originally referred to wine.

The tradition of coffee drinking began in Yemen during the 15th century. From its Arabic roots, it made its way to Turkey as “kahve.” As coffee made its journey to Europe, it first arrived in Italy, where it became known as “caffe.” 

This term eventually spread to most Western languages by the early 17th century. By 1650, the beverage had made its way to England, adopting the name it is recognised by today: coffee.

english words from arabic

Whether it’s ice cream or cake or candy, these treats are filled with sugar, one of the many English words from Arabic. Source: AFP

2. Sugar

For those of you who enjoy sweet treats, you owe much of your enjoyment to Arabic traders. During the medieval period, the Arabic-speaking world served as a significant centre for the production and trade of sugar.

The knowledge of sugar-making techniques travelled to Europe and other regions through trade and cultural interactions. Sugar soon became a highly prized commodity and a crucial ingredient in various culinary and confectionery preparations, leading to its adoption in diverse languages.

The English word “sugar” can be traced back to the Arabic word “sukkar,” which originally referred to sugar derived from sugarcane. 

“Sukkar” was then incorporated into medieval Latin as “sucarum” and later adopted into Old French as “sucre.” From Old French, it entered Middle English as “sugre,” eventually evolving into the modern English term “sugar.”

English words from Arabic

“Lemon” is one of the many English words that are derived from other languages. Source: AFP

3. Lemon

The English term “lemon” came from the Arabic word “laimun.” Citrus fruits, including lemons, have a long history of cultivation and trade in regions where Arabic was spoken, especially in the Middle East.

As knowledge of these fruits spread through trade routes and cultural exchanges, their names were adopted into various languages, often with slight variations.

The term “limon” emerged in the French language when the fruit found its way to Spain and then spread across Europe.

Throughout its journey, the meaning of “lemon” remained consistent, referring to a “pale yellow citrus fruit.”

Today, the word “lemon” is sometimes associated with difficulty, as reflected in the popular expression: “If life gives you lemons, make lemonade,” encouraging optimism and resilience during challenging times.

4. Algebra

English owes more to Arabic culture in mathematics than just zero and numerals. The term “algebra” has its roots in the Arabic word “al-jabr,” which means “a reunion of broken parts,” similar to setting a bone. 

This concept was introduced in a ninth-century Arabic treatise on mathematics, contributing to the symbolic use of the term.

The widely used mathematical system entered the English language during the 15th century. It uses symbols instead of numbers to solve problems and stands as one of the oldest forms of mathematics. 

English words from Arabic

The English word “sofa” can be traced back to the Arabic word “ṣuffa.” Source: AFP

5. Sofa

The term “sofa” we commonly use has its origins in the Turkish language, which in turn borrowed it from the Arabic word “suffa,” referring to a raised platform with carpeting. 

The Arabic influence entered into Turkish and eventually made its way into Western languages during the 16th century, where it specifically referred to a Middle-Eastern-style dais with rugs and cushions. Later, in late-17th-century French, the meaning evolved to refer to the Western-style sofa with legs.

6. Mattress

You’ll be surprised to know that Europeans didn’t always rest on large, soft, cushioned furniture. Throughout much of their history, bedding was simpler. 

The Arabic word for the place where cushions were laid down was “matrah,” derived from “taraha,” meaning “to throw.”

This term found its way into Latin as “materacium” or “materatium,” and from there, it entered Italian and other European languages.

“Matrah” referred to a large cushion or rug used for lying on and spread into French and English during the 14th century. At that time in Europe, the word “mattress” typically meant a padded under-blanket or a “quilt to lie upon.”

English words from Arabic

Checkmate is derived from the Arabic phrase “shāh māt,” which means “the king is dead.” Source: AFP

7. Checkmate

If you have ever played chess, you would be familiar with the term “checkmate,” but did you know that this word is actually from Arabic? 

“Checkmate” is derived from the Arabic phrase “shāh māt,” which translates to “the king is dead” or “the king is helpless.”

In the context of chess, “checkmate” signifies a situation where the opponent’s king is in a position to be captured (in check), and there is no legal move the player can make to escape capture (mate). 

When a player achieves checkmate, the game concludes, and they are the winners. The term entered Europe through the spread of chess and its rules during the Middle Ages and has remained in use ever since.

8. Safari

The term “safari” is believed to have its roots in the Arabic word “safar,” which translates to “journey” or “travel.” 

Swahili adopted this word from Arabic, and it became closely associated with expeditions in Africa, particularly during the colonial era when Europeans began exploring the continent for hunting expeditions and adventurous journeys. 

The connection between Swahili’s “safari” and Arabic’s “safar” reflects the historical trade and cultural interactions between Arab traders and the coastal communities of East Africa.

9. Cotton

Although cotton’s origin is not Arabic, its name has its origins in the Arabic language. The English word “cotton” can be traced back to the Arabic word “qutn.” 

The Arabic-speaking world played a significant role in the production and trade of cotton, and through medieval trade routes, cotton spread to various parts of the world, including Europe. 

Today, cotton stands as one of the most important and widely used natural fibers globally, playing a crucial role in the textile industry and various other applications.

The medieval Arabic word for cotton was adopted into Roman languages around the mid-12th century and entered the English language a century later.

As Westerners engaged in trade with Arabian traders, the word became incorporated into their language. 

The Arabic term was further borrowed into various European languages, including Old Italian (“cotone”), Old French (“coton”), and eventually into Middle English as “cotton.”

English words from Arabic

Did you know that “magazine” is one of the many English words from Arabic? Source: AFP

10. Magazine

Originally signifying a storehouse or place for storing goods in the 1580s, the word “magazine” finds its roots in the Arabic “makhazin,” the plural of “makhzan,” meaning “storehouse.” 

The term is still used in a military context, referring to a storage place for explosives.

The word travelled through languages, originating from Arabic and entering French (now using “magasin” to refer to a store), then Italian as “magazzino,” before making its way into English.

In the publishing sense of the word, “magazine” emerged in English during the 17th century, representing a store of information about military or navigation subjects.