Number one for English language teachers

Words from other languages: Arabic

Type: Article

Tim Bowen helps you decipher the algorithm to the English language with these Arabic words used in English.

ose your english 310x119 arabic

A substantial number of English words that can be traced back to Arabic origins begin with the letter ‘a’ and, in many cases, with the letters ‘al’, which can be used to make nouns definite in Arabic. 

Words that fall into this category include algebra (from al-jabr – completing or restoring broken parts), alchemy (and thence chemistry), alcove (originally meaning vault), albatross and alcohol. Much used in modern-day data-processing, the term algorithm derives from the name of a 9th century Arabic mathematician, al-Khwarizmi. 

There are also a number of food-related words that probably have their origins in Arabic, notably candy (from qand, meaning sugared), hummus, lemon, lime, orange (through Arabic when oranges were first brought to the Mediterranean from India), saffron and syrup (related to the sweet powder sherbet, which has the same root). 

The words for several household items originate in Arabic. These include mattress (originally a large rug for lying on), sofa, jar and cotton (from Arabic qutn). 

Other assorted words that are widely believed to have their origins in Arabic include carat (used to measure gemstones and gold, and from the word qirat, a small unit of weight), arsenal (house of manufacturing), caravan, giraffe and cipher (and decipher), which has its origins in the word sifr, meaning zero.

Teaching tip: ask learners to use a search engine to find the meaning (and the original meaning) of these English words of Arabic origin: admiral, adobe, alkali, assassin, average, crimson, elixir and tangerine. The question ‘What is the origin of the word …’ will usually provide an answer.

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Readers' comments (2)

  • Hi bartonim,

    Thanks for the feedback. Glad to hear that you find this so interesting. We publish a new 'words from other languages' article each month and you can find them all here:

    Please do let us know if there is a specific language that you would like to know about.

    Best wishes,
    The onestopenglish team

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  • This is really fascinating! I would use this and any other foreign-word origin material for my English lessons, most certainly. It's an interesting topic!

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