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13 English Words You Didn’t Know Have an Origin in Chinese, Arabic, or Japanese — Part 2

August 28, 2013

If you missed Part 1 of this blog series about the origin of English words, follow the link to catch up on some English words that come from Chinese!  In the first post we also introduced the idea that language and culture form a two-way street. Based on these English words derived from Arabic, are we correct?


أمير amīr, commander. Amīr al-bahr = "commander of the sea" was a title Arabic-speaking Muslims used when they controlled the now-Italian island of Sicily. After the fall of the Emirate of Sicily, the Normans in Sicily continued using this title in a Latinized form, which was successively adopted by the medieval Genoese and French. As the birthplace of seafaring, it makes sense that this word came from what is the present-day Arab world – would you have guessed that yourself?


via Arabic طوفان; ultimately from 颱風 táifēng, not to be confused with the monster typhon.

Well, now we’ve contradicted our assertion that the interaction of language and culture is a two way street; it’s really more like a traffic jam (or a demolition derby) as multiple cultures and languages get involved. The original Chinese phrase was transliterated into Arabic, which English speakers then took from there.  As we will learn in a later blog, 8% of the Spanish language comes from Arabic, and considering the amount of overlap between Spanish and English, you can see how that two way street soon collapses into a free-for-all!

Jumper (dress or pullover sweater) 

جبّة jubba, a loose outer garment. The word is also transliterated into 11th-century Italian Latin as jupa = "a jacket of oriental origin."

I actually remember being confused by this word as a child, when my mom would tell my sister to put on her jumper.  I just figured it was the kind of relatively loose, comfortable clothing you could easily jump with while wearing – but of course, the truth is always more complicated (not to mention more interesting!).


صفر sifr, zero. Medieval Arabic

OK – any mathematicians out there? Maybe you can help me out – apparently ‘zero’ is not something that just ‘exists.’ People had to invent it. This opens the floor for all kinds of metaphysical debates that aren’t much use in a language blog (or anywhere, perhaps).  Suffice it to say, this concept was invented around the 9th century in India, a place with close geographical proximity to the Arabic-speaking world.  Again, we see the ‘traffic jam’ come into play, as one culture/language bleeds into another.  Still think language doesn’t influence culture?  Well, what would you do with no word for zero?

If you are also interested in knowing of English load words from Japanese, stay tuned on Cheng & Tsui’s blog in next week!