8 Everyday English words with Arabic origins

English Words Arabic Origins

With over 420 million speakers worldwide, Arabic is the fifth most spoken language in the world. There are 25 countries that claim Arabic as an official language, though the variety of Arabic that is spoken can vary greatly from country to country and there are at least 35 dialects of the language.

Arabic’s influence on other languages

It is believed that the word ‘Arab’ means ‘nomad’ and that the Arabic language originated from nomadic tribes in the desert regions of the Arabian Peninsula. The language has been around since the 4th century and its influence can be seen around the world today.

The great impact that the 800-year presence of the Moors in the Iberian Peninsula had on the Spanish and Portuguese languages and cultures has been widely documented, but it also left a linguistic imprint on English. Many day-to-day words in English either came directly from Arabic or via other tongues, most often the Romance languages.

Let’s take a closer look at some of the English words that have their roots in Arabic.


A tell-tale sign that a word has Arabic roots is the ‘al’ prefix (think alchemy, albatross, alcove, and algorithm) and alcohol, is no exception. Interestingly, the word is derived from the Arabic al-kuhl meaning ‘the kohl’. Yes, that’s a type of eye makeup, but where’s the connection between cosmetics and alcohol?

Kohl was traditionally made by grinding stibnite, the word then came to mean the process of grinding to powder, then distillation, and eventually ethanol (or ethyl alcohol).


Another ‘al’ word, well spotted! This much-dreaded part of math class comes from the word al-jabr meaning completing or restoring broken parts. The word’s use in the mathematical field was first recorded in the 9th century in the book The Compendium of Calculation by Restoring and Balancing by the mathematician Mohammed Ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi, which was translated into Latin in the 12th century. Medieval Latins borrowed both the mathematical method and the term, which eventually reached English and your high school math class.


Is there anything nicer than waking up to the smell of freshly brewed coffee? It’s a widely held belief that what is now a worldwide habit of coffee drinking originated in Yemen in the 15th century. In fact, Yemeni coffee is still considered some of the best in the world.

The Arabic word, qahwa, led to the Turkish term kahve, then the Italian caffè, and the rest is caffeinated history. And that yummy chocolatey-coffee mocha you drink in the winter months also owes its name to Yemen, and the city of Mocha, or al-Makha, which is home to the port from which Yemen shipped its coffee


As the game of chess was introduced to Medieval Europe through the Arabs, it’s not surprising that this term comes from Arabic. The first part of the word, check, originates from the Old Persian shah, meaning ‘king’. This became the Arabic shāh, pronounced in the Middle Ages with a hard final ‘h’. This then became shāh māt, meaningking dies’, leading to our checkmate.

English owes its variants of the word check, such as checkbook, checkout, and exchequer to the same source.


The name of these African animals has its earliest known origins in the Arabic word zarāfah, which translates as ‘fast-walker’, and may have come from the Somali word geri. Middle English spellings include jarraf, ziraph, and gerfauntz. The latter apparently caused some confusion with olifaunt, meaning ‘elephant’, two rather different animals!


As you climb into your comfy bed at night, have you ever wondered where the word mattress came from? Of course, we have the Arabic language to thank! Specifically the term matrah, a large cushion or rug for lying on, which in turn comes from the root tarah meaning ‘to throw something down’.


This word first appeared in English in 1754 when English writer, Horace Walpole used it in a letter to the American politician and education reformer, Horace Mann. Walpole took the word from the Persian fairy tale The Three Princes of Serendip, whose protagonists frequently made discoveries through happy accidents.

Serendip was taken from the Arabic Serendip, or Sarandib, an old name for modern-day Sri Lanka, which may have been derived from the Sanskrit name, Simhaladvipa, meaning ‘Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island’.


Although many cultures, such as the Mayans and the Babylonians, had the concept of marking nothingness, it was the ancient Indians who first treated nothingness as a numeral. The use of zero became common in many countries and it was the Italian mathematician, Fibonacci, who, after spending his childhood in what is now Algeria, took the idea, and the Arabic word zefiro, back to Italy, Latinizing it to zephirum at the beginning of the 13th century.

The notion of zero was actually rather controversial in Europe. The concerns ranged from the theological (where does nothingness sit alongside the idea of eternity and an omnipresent God?) and the practical (its use was prohibited in Florence as they thought the circular shape could easily be changed to a 6 or 9 by cheating merchants). It wasn’t until the 15th century that the zero was fully accepted in the Western world, some 300 years after the use of Arabic numerals had become the norm.

Arabic translation

Being such a widely spoken language, having your company’s content translated from English into Arabic is a smart business choice, but make sure that your translation serviced provider is well-versed in the linguistic and cultural features specific to the region of your target market. BeTranslated’s skilled translators are experienced in localization and always work with your particular needs in mind. Get in touch today for more information or a free, no-obligation quote.

Mistakes translators make and how to spot them

mistakes translators make

In a world as rapidly progressing as ours, business endeavors often cannot wait. And even if you and your client don’t share a common language, you have to communicate in order to close the deal. Thanks to professional translation services – scoring that huge account with your German, Japanese, or Chinese-speaking customer should be a piece of cake. (more…)

How language skills can help you run your business smoothly

languages help business

Starting a new business is an exciting experience. You probably have a million and one ideas that you would like to try out and lots of strategies for growing your business to great heights. That being said, not many business owners take the communication aspect of business growth as seriously as they should. And yet, its importance can hardly be overstated. (more…)

Falling ill abroad when you don’t speak the local language

Many of us have been there at one time or another; falling ill in a country where we don’t speak the language. This, of course, poses a series of problems depending on how ill you are. In most cases you will probably be fine in a day or two after having had some rest, fluids, and perhaps some painkillers, however, if you need to see a medical professional things can get complicated. Language barriers can be stressful at the best of times, but when you’re not feeling your best they can seem insurmountable.

Luckily there are ways around this problem, for instance you could conduct an online search in order to find English-speaking doctors in Seville, if you are in Spain that is. Before presenting possible solutions, perhaps it’d be a good idea to go over a few of the most common issues you might experience when falling ill abroad in a non-English speaking country.

5 common hurdles when seeking medical care abroad

1. Understanding how it all works

Encountering language barriers while traveling is always frustrating but most of the time the issue at hand will have something to do with ordering food or asking for directions. When it comes to your health, the stakes are much higher. You simply can’t afford there to be any misunderstandings and the translations need to be flawless. What you really need is to find a doctor that speaks proficient English in order for you to feel safe and well taken care of.

By conducting a search online, you will most likely be able to find English-speaking doctors in your immediate surroundings. There are also lots of helpful blogs about how to seek medical assistance in different cities directed at foreigners.

2. Explaining your symptoms

Once you arrive at a clinic, hospital or pharmacy you may encounter the next issue. Even if you have managed to find a medical facility with an English speaking doctor, they may not be the first person you encounter. Try and use online translation services so that you can make yourself understood, explain your symptoms, and most importantly, ask for a doctor that speaks English. If you are struggling to read a translation, you can always show them your phone: it’s not a perfect solution, but in an emergency top-quality medical translation is not always at your fingertips.

3. Payment

Unfortunately, the challenges don’t necessarily end after you’ve been treated: there’s the question of payment. Understanding the different payment systems in each country is another common issue when falling ill abroad. It’s great to travel but one of the first things you should always make yourself acquainted with is how the healthcare system works with your own insurances. This way you will at least know a little about what you might expect.

Here again, an online translator will come in handy unless you have the opportunity to ask another member of the medical staff, provided they speak English, of course.

4. How to approach aftercare

Depending upon how your doctor’s visit pans out, it’s likely that you will receive some instructions regarding your aftercare. If you are to stay at the hospital, there will hopefully be medical staff available that speaks some English, however, if you are released with information on how to continue your treatment, you need to make sure that you understand all of the instructions that are provided. Ask the doctor to provide substantial explanations as well as what to do if you start feeling worse. Once you have established rapport with the doctor, make use of it and ask all and any questions you might have.

5. Medication

The final common issue that you might face when falling ill abroad is the question of medication. If you are prescribed medication, make sure you know why you should be taking it, how you should be taking it and most importantly, what you should do if you experience any side effects. If you can’t get a translation of medical instructions from the clinic, make sure you consult with your doctor before leaving. Don’t forget to ensure you know how to go about getting hold of your medication; the system may differ greatly from your own country.

Familiarize yourself with different healthcare systems

Don’t be afraid to go on your next journey, wherever it may lead. Instead, take precautions such as familiarizing yourself with the local healthcare system. Regardless if you are taking a trip to Buenos Aires, Seoul or Munich, remember it is always best to be prepared. Luckily you are able to find the answer to most questions online. The most common issues mentioned here are by no means an exhaustive list but a good indicator as to why you should always be prepared.

If you are seeking a reliable medical or pharmaceutical translation service, look no further than BeTranslated. Get in touch for more information or a free, no-obligation quote today.