Whereas most of the world knows this country by some derivative of the Greek word Aigyptos, Egyptians themselves call it something else entirely: Misr, often pronounced Masr.
The corresponding adjective is masri — a patronymic widely used in the Arab world. Slight variations of the toponym Misr exist in Persian, Urdu, Hindi, Turkish, Azeri, Swahili, Malay and Bahasa Indonesia. It is found also in the Hebrew word Mitsrayim, mentioned in Genesis and most likely the oldest Semitic name for that country. Translated literally, Mitsrayim means “the two straits” — perhaps in reference to the two kingdoms of Upper and Lower Egypt.
As for the Arabic word misr, it is also used as a common noun meaning a land or region, but with a nuance of remoteness. In the Egyptian dialect, Masr refers not only to that nation but also to its capital; “from Cairo to Alexandria” is said “min Masr lil-Iskandariyah“; the city’s official name, al-Qahira, is used only in writing or in formal contexts.
Red land, black land
Inhabitants of Pharaonic Egypt called their country Kemet, ‘Black Land’, meaning fertile land. The name survived in the Coptic word Kimi, which we find again in the earliest Greek texts as Khemia. Moreover, this very ancient Greek name for Egypt may be the source of another travelling word, ‘alchemy’, which made a remarkable detour through the Arab world. I’ll come back to it. Meanwhile, in the language of the pharaohs, the word kemet stood in contrast with the word deshret, literally ‘red land’, denoting the desert1.
The Greeks gave the country its most well-known name, Aigyptos, which countless languages later borrowed. The word itself could well have originated from Hi-ku-Ptah, the name of a temple devoted to the god Ptah in the city of Memphis, one of Ancient Egypt’s most important cities, the ruins of which lie on the outskirts of Cairo. Thus, the name of the temple came to denote the city and, eventually, the entire country.
The names for Egypt have spawned many derivatives, some of them justified — for example ‘copt’ and ‘coptic’ — others not, for instance ‘gypsy’ in English, ‘gitan’ in French and ‘gitano’ in Spanish, all used to describe the Roms, who were mistakenly thought to have come from the banks of the Nile.
In Lebanon, the word misriye (used almost exclusively in its plural forms, either massari or misriyet) is used colloquially for money — in the sense of wealth or currency. This usage appears to have originated in the 19th Century, when the viceroy of Egypt’s troops briefly occupied Lebanon. During the occupation, Egyptian coins were put into circulation. Why it is that, of all the currencies we, Lebanese, have known throughout our history, we remember only these ‘Egyptians’, I have no explanation yet.
In Egypt itself, the word used to describe this same idea of money is flouss, plural of fels, a small unit of currency. This colloquial use of flouss is found in various other Arab countries – and sometimes in France, in the slang word flouze, imported from North Africa during the colonial era.
- Some suggest that Latin might have borrowed desertum from the Ancient Egyptian word deshret. I merely flag this here for you to consider, even though I have yet to see any convincing argument for it. [↩]