Arabic words in English

English has absorbed vocabulary from a many different languages over the course of its history, including quite a lot from Arabic. The Oxford English Dictionary, for example, list more than 900 Arabic words that are used in English, some are obscure and rarely used, while others are more common.

Some words have come directly from Arabic, others have arrived via other languages such as Spanish, French, Italian, Greek, Latin, Turkish, Urdu or Persian. The pronunciation of these words often changes in the course of transmission from one language to another so many don’t resemble the original Arabic versions. Their meanings have also changed, for example algebra, from the Arabic لجبر al-jabr, originally meant “bone setting”.

In recent years quite a few new words of Arabic origin have entered the English language, including imam (leader), al-Jazeera (lit. “the peninsula”), al-Qaeda (lit. “the base”), jihad (lit. “struggle”) and hijab (lit. “curtain/cover”).

Some Arabic loanwords in English start with the Arabic definite article, al (sounds like el in Spanish), which has become attached to them. These include albatross, alchemy, alcohol, alcove, alfalfa, algebra, algorithm, alkali and almanac.

Others, which aren’t so easy to spot, include: apricot, arsenal, average, azure, barbican, calico, carat, cheque, cipher, cotton, elixir, gazelle, giraffe, henna, jasmine, mattress, monsoon, marzipan, orange, saffron, sugar, syrup, tabby, tariff and zero.