Archive for October, 2009

My Web of Words – 14 – Hazard

The adventure of words reads like a series: each episode leads to another and then yet another and so on forever, unconstrained by the borders that divide nations, disciplines and eras.

Writing about ‘mattress’ made me think of that other piece of furniture, ‘table’, and then of tabula and of the game of tawleh; this, in turn, reminded me of the words that tawleh players in Lebanon mutter when they call the roll of the dice, a memory that then led me to the Indo-Persian word banj and its colonial offspring ‘punch’. As you might expect, the dice themselves now lead me to that classic example of an itinerant word, ‘hazard’, since a die is called az-zahr in Arabic. Several etymological dictionaries say that English took ‘hazard’, and French hasard, from Arabic, through the Spanish go-between azar.

While the case for this affiliation is both compelling and logical, not everyone agrees with it. The contention is not whether ‘hazard’ is taken from Arabic, which appears clearly established, but whether it is derived from az-zahr in particular. For while az-zahr does indeed mean ‘die’ in spoken Arabic, this sense of the word isn’t found in Classical Arabic, which instead calls dice nard or nardasheer, words with a Persian ring to them. The term zahr does have a number of meanings, including ‘flower’, but its usage to denote ‘die’ seems to be recent, and perhaps ensues from the custom - not completely vanished - of decorating the face of the die representing ’1′ with a picture of a flower.

So where does ‘hazard’ come from? Perhaps, as some linguists propose, from the verb yasara, which means ‘to roll the dice’. Indeed, when the Koran condemns games of chance, it refers to them as maysir, a noun derived from the same Arabic root as the verb yasara, namely y.s.r.1 This stem-word evokes a sense of ease, of abundance or of fluency. The name ‘Yasser’, made well known by the Palestinian leader Arafat, means ‘accessible’, or ‘agreeable company’; in Classical Arabic, the word can denote a dice-player, but the word is rarely used in this sense nowadays.

Such homonyms are not infrequent in Arabic. If we start with a stem-word like y.s.r, which carries many shades of meaning, we can reach the most surprising results. The idea of ‘ease’ carries not only positive connotations but negative ones too, as is evident in the notions of looking for easy answers, of a lack of intellectual rigor or of a want of rectitude. This may be why the Arabic word for ‘left’ (as opposed to ‘right’) in both the directional and political sense is yasaar, a word derived from the same root; moreover, in Classical Arabic, yasaar also means ‘wealth’… all of which to say that, while the link between ‘hazard’ and az-zahr remains plausible, the hypothesis that draws ‘hazard’ from yasara is itself reasonably credible.

Speaking of similarity, it seems to me noteworthy that, while the French word hasard and its English nephew ‘hazard’ both bear a strong resemblance to their Spanish grandfather azar and to their Arabic ancestors, whatever these may be, they are far from identical. The French word hasard encompasses a sense of chance, and sometimes even of good fortune, and often has a positive connotation; some even consider that the word has become a sort of lay equivalent for what was once called Providence. The Spanish word azar retains this same notion of chance and uncertainty, but on occasion leans towards the unhappy side of life, for example in the expression los azares de la vida, which might by translated as the ‘vicissitudes of life’. As for the English word ‘hazard’, it no longer retains any positive sense at all and has become synonymous with danger or, at the very least, with risk.

This last word also deserves a moment of our attention. According to some sources, the various forms of the word ‘risk’ that we find in European languages – risque, risiko, riesgo, rischio, etc. – might all stem from the same Arabic word rizq, which means ‘fortune’. The linguistic transaction took place through Mediterranean merchants and shipowners at the end of the Middle Ages, and it long retained a maritime connotation. In Lebanon, the word is sometimes used in the sense of property, but is most commonly used in reference to emigrants who have left in search of fortune. The Semitic root r.z.q is found in many words, including the two Divine epithets ar-razaq and ar-razzaq, which both mean ‘He who lavishes fortune’, though with some variance in nuance.

So it is quite plausible that the word ‘risk’ came from Arabic. However, one could just as well argue that it comes from the Latin resecum, ‘that which cuts’, a term used to describe reefs2; or from the Greek risikon, a word found in the Odyssey, and which is linked to the idea of ‘root’, but which was sometimes used during the Byzantine era to mean ‘chance’.

Mediterranean relations are difficult to untangle, and it strikes me as prudent to admit that, until proven otherwise, we cannot be certain of any one explanation.

  1. TRANSLATOR’S NOTE: The romanisation of Arabic presents numerous problems, and no fully accurate system exists. In this post, the author has romanised Arabic to match French phonetics; I have retained his spellings wherever there is a correspondence between English and French phonetics. When the two diverge, however, I have attempted to re-create the French sound with the English alphabet. For example, the author has romanised the stem of yasara (yaçara in French) as y.ç.r. Since c-cedilla doesn’t exist in English, and since some readers might mistake it for the orthographically identical IPA symbol assigned to another sound entirely, I have translated it as ‘s’: y.s.r []
  2. AUTHOR’S NOTE: The Dictionnaire historique de la langue française puts forward another theory, attributed to Pierre Guiraud, that links the word ‘risk’ to the Latin verb rixare, ‘to quarrel’, which also gave French the word rixe, meaning a ‘brawl’ or ‘scuffle’. []

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My Web of Words – 13 – Apricot

Though, like many people, I take a keen interest in Arab words adopted into European languages, this linguistic crossover alone isn’t enough to quench my thirst for knowledge. Sometimes it even runs counter to the point I’m trying to make. For Arab civilisation is more than just one of Western civilisation’s wellsprings; it is not just a way-point, still less a mere conduit; Arab civilisation, first and foremost, is daughter to the same ancestors as the West, and is much inspired by Greece and Rome. Furthermore, she has borrowed plentifully from the Persians, Indians, Turks, Arameans and Hebrews, as well as from Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt. And she has given abundantly in return to all of these, or to their heirs.

That is why I am only too pleased to debunk the myths surrounding words whenever I have the chance. I like to either reveal the eastern origins of words when these aren’t immediately obvious – as is the case, for instance, with the words ‘mattress’, ‘punch’ and ‘rose’ – or, conversely, to flush out the more complicated etymological roads taken by words that at first blush appear to have obvious oriental origins, as I showed with ‘alcohol’. The word ‘apricot’ is very much of the same kind.

The names for the apricot in various European languages – abricot, aprikose, albicocca, albaricoque, albricoque, albercoc, etc. – come from the old Arabic name for this fruit, al-barqouq. Oddly, this word no longer means the same thing in the Arab world. In those countries where it is still used, it generally refers to the plum rather than to the apricot; more generally in agronomic publications, it denotes all the species that belong to the genus prunus, which includes plums, apricots, cherries, peaches and almonds. The apricot itself is commonly known as meshmesh in the Egyptian pronunciation or meshmosh in the Lebanese.

I don’t know the origin of this last word, and the paucity of Arabic etymological data doesn’t encourage me to go digging for it, at least not for the moment. The source of the word al-barqouq, on the other hand, is well established. The Arabs borrowed it from the Byzantines – the Roum – who called this fruit a praikokion, which comes from the Latin word praecoquum, meaning ‘precocious’ – a name doubtlessly given to the apricot because it fruits earlier than others.

But this name is relatively recent. In the ancient world, the Romans called the apricot armeniaca because they discovered it through Armenia. In some Latin American countries – Argentina or Chile, for example – the fruit is called damasco, no doubt because Syrian immigrants brought with them particularly popular varieties of it. Indeed, one Damascus specialty is an apricot paste known as qamareddin – literally, ‘the moon of religion’, a funny expression that originally denoted a type of apricot.

But back to the Romans: their word for apricot, armeniaca, had a counterpart in the word persica, their name for another fruit, this one supposedly from Persia. This word gave Swedish persika, Dutch perzik, German pfirsich, Italian pesca, French pêche and English ‘peach’. But that will be the subject of another post.

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My Web of Words – 12 – Rose

What is fascinating about the adventure of words is that there is never any real beginning. However far back you follow the thread, however carefully you work through each mutation and identify every borrowing and every drift or twist in meaning, there is always a nebulous, obscure and elusive ‘before’. One could almost call this the dawn of words, the dawn of languages, in the same way that we speak about the dawn of time.

Of course, you can be content with the minimum. The word ‘rose’, for example, clearly comes from the Latin rosa, and it’s quite acceptable to stop there. But if your nature or fervour pushes you on, then be prepared for a long trip.

For the Romans must have found the word rosa somewhere, and it’s with no surprise that we learn that it comes from the Greek rhodon – the same root that gave us ‘rhododendron’, which means ‘rose tree’. But we learn also that in the ancient world – about two and a half thousand years ago - the Greeks said not rhodon but wrodon, a word very probably borrowed from the ancient Indo-Iranian wurdi, warda, ward or vrda.

In Arabic, a rose is called wardah, while in Hebrew it’s vered. While both languages are Semitic, they clearly drank from the same stream as the Greek. The word warda also existed in Aramaic, the language spoken by Jesus. Aramaic was one of Antiquity’s great languages and perhaps the first that could claim to be international in scope, given that several empires – including the Assyrian, then the Persian – adopted it as their official language. It is reasonable to suppose, then, that the Indo-Iranian word for ‘rose’ passed into the Semitic languages through Aramaic.1

And before this, ask the insatiably curious? Some linguists have an answer, or rather a theory, ready for them. They claim that the source for all the different words for ‘rose’ lies in the mother language of all Indo-Europeans2 in which the word wrdho meant ‘thorn’ or ‘bramble’. Thus, the original name for ‘rose’ was probably linked to its capacity to be a nuisance rather than to its beauty.

This brings to mind a subtle variant of the classic line about seeing a glass as half empty or half full: the optimist never sees the thorns; the pessimist never sees the rose. No doubt both will agree, however, with the Chinese proverb that says, ‘the rose has thorns only for those who would gather it’.

  1. The Modern Persian word for rose is gul. Though it seems improbable, linguists think that this word (adopted by the Turks as gül) is nonetheless from the same source, though of course it’s been through a number of mutations. I’m not going to linger on it here; I’m just pointing it out. []
  2. As I mentioned in my preceding article on the word ‘punch’, linguists have reconstructed this language – called proto-Indo-European or sometimes simply Indo-European – from various languages that belong to the same family. Their starting point is the idea that there had to have been an original group of people who spoke the language from which arose Greek, Latin, French, English, Russian, Persian, Hindi and hundreds of other languages, living or dead. There are various hypotheses about both the era and the area when this initial people lived. []

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My Web of Words – 11 – Punch

While making the connections in my last article between the words ‘table’, tabula and the game of tawleh, I remembered the custom in Lebanon and other countries of the Levant of calling the outcome of the dice in a ritualised language particular to the game.

Each player throws two small, ivory-coloured dice in turn. If these come up five and two, the players say banj dou; for six and one, they say shesh yek. This is Persian – a language which, in the main, players don’t speak and which they use only when playing tawleh. No one is supposed to depart from this tradition; if anyone in the village where I grew up had had the bad idea of calling the numbers in Arabic, French or English, he would have found himself the object of much jocosity; and purists - my uncles, for example – would have simply refused to play with him.

Everyone sticks to this ritual, which goes back at least to the time of the Ottomans, perhaps even earlier. Players call most numbers in Persian. In certain cases, you can switch between Persian and Turkish – a roll of five-four can be called either banj-johar (Persian) or besh-dort (Turkish); two-one can be either dou-yek or iki-bir. Only one roll – six-five – can be called in a mix of both languages, shesh-besh, the first word being Persian, the second Turkish. The two words were probably coupled because they share the same ending. In some countries – Tunisia and Israel, for example – the game of tawleh is actually known as shesh-besh.

I should point out that I have transcribed the numbers – the word banj in particular – in the Lebanese pronunciation1. Persian-speakers pronounce their word for ‘five’ as pandj, which is the source of the word ‘punch’, a cocktail made from five ingredients – usually water, alcohol, lemon, sugar and spices, though there are many variants.

From the Commedia dell’arte to the Afghan wars

Over the past three centuries, the word ‘punch’ has spread across the world thanks in part to its likeness to other English words that, though derived from entirely different sources, are written and pronounced the same way. The meanings of all these ‘punches’ have, in a way, closed ranks. There is the verb ‘to punch’, for example, and its noun, ‘punch’; there is the expression ‘punch line’, referring to the comic drop of an article or joke. These ‘punches’ come from the old French ponchon, which gave modern French its word for awl, poinçon. ‘Punch’ is also the short form of Punchinello, the English name for the iconic character from the Commedia dell’arte known in Italian as Pulcinella and in French, Polichinelle. The famous satirical magazine Punch, founded in 1841, was named after him.

I’m giving all these homonyms because they all helped the word ‘punch’ flourish. Just like humans, words are born, die, make fortunes or go broke; they change their appearance or vocation according to circumstance; they emigrate to distant lands and sometimes return so transformed that they’re hardly recognisable - which is what I find so delightful about them.

Regarding the drink itself, its name could well come from the Hindi word panch, or else directly from the Persian, since Hindi and Persian are close relatives. Whatever the case, the words for the numeral ’5′ in most Indo-European languages are derived from the same source. The kinship of some of these with pandj is easy to see, for example the Greek pente, which led to composites such as ‘pentagon’. In others, the link is much less obvious, for example the French cinq, English ‘five’, or the Scandinavians’ fem. Linguists, however, tell us that the original name for the numeral in the hypothetical Indo-European mother language – supposedly spoken some six or seven thousand years ago - was pengke, and that each ethnic group transformed this in its own way, the Celts into pemp, the Germanic tribes into fimf, the Latins into quinque, etc.

Going back to the Indo-Iranian word for this numeral, we find it not only in the name of the cocktail, but in several toponyms as well. The Punjab, for example, a territory divided between India and Pakistan, is a contraction of panch-ab, meaning ‘five waters’ – a concise way of saying ‘the land of five rivers’. In the same part of Asia is located the Panjshir valley,  where Ahmad Shah Massoud was assassinated on the 9th of September 2001. The name pandj-shir means ‘five lions’ in Persian. This etymology explains, at least in part, why the famous Afghan commander was dubbed ‘the lion of Panjshir’.

  1. AUTHOR’S NOTE: Because the Persian consonant ‘p’ doesn’t exist in Arabic, it is generally transformed into ‘b’. []

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