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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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  1. #1 by Merve on November 9th, 2009

    Mr. Maalouf,
    I’ve been following your books and occasionaly reading your blog. I feel proud everytime you mention Istanbul in your books for I’m a born Istanbulian.
    I’m interested in linguistics too so I just wanted to note down something about your point on “az-zahr”. We use the word in turkish written as “zar” but it has two different meanings. One dice obviously and the other one is the film on food etc.
    Thought you might like to know.

  2. #2 by oriol on December 5th, 2009

    Mr. Malouf, it is strange how one language comes from one people to another. In albanian, for example, we say anije, for anijeh, ship, in arabic, me for meaa, with in arabic, fut for fut, enter, ect… But the thing that made me most impression during this month is that in Syria they use an albanian expression ‘shum turp’, for ‘o what a shame’, a word which, as an arab lingusit explained to me, is in arabic dialect of syria from some centuries. And I’m mentioning just a few examples how one language penetrates another, although there are some other examples: for example in albanian we have words like pike-pike, ngjyra-ngjyra, and many many other like this, as a matter of fact is some kind of expression that is applied to some words to give a stronger color to the word, but it seems that it exists only in the arabic and it reminds me the sond of the arabic def. I can tell thousand and more words in albanian that it seems have a root frome arabic, there is a whole a corpus of arabic words, and another of persian words, and another one of turkish words, but you know what is the most impressive thing: in the albanian language there are tow or three variations for one word, and one of them is for sure from an albanian root, so completely native, but the people are ok with all the variations.
    Just in case

  3. #3 by Joana on December 29th, 2009

    I just love your book “Les identités Meurtrières”, i’m in my first year of college, and i have an assignment about your book.
    By beginning the book did not seem very interesting, as I was reading, I found it wonderful and I was identifying myself as well!
    anyway, just wanted you to know that I loved your book, I always thought that when you love a book, you should thank the author.
    Sincerely Joana Laranjeira

  4. #4 by Mzrf on October 4th, 2010

    Mr. Maalouf,
    I am a strict follower of your books and I also liked very much your articles on etymology as I am interested in this field of language and I took several etymology courses in the college. While reading your article about the etymology of the word “hazard”, it suddenly flushed into my mind that the word “hasar” in Turkish may have somehow a relationship with hazard. Hasar means damage, harm, etc. in English. Or maybe it is just a coincedence.
    I though that it would be an interesting point.
    Yours sincerely

  5. #5 by Mzrf on October 18th, 2010

    Mr. Maalouf,
    I am a strict follower of your books and I also liked very much your articles on etymology as I am interested in this field of language and I took several etymology courses in the college. While reading your article about the etymology of the word “hazard”, it suddenly flushed into my mind that the word “hasar” in Turkish may have somehow a relationship with hazard. Hasar means damage, harm, etc. in English. Or maybe it is just a coincedence.
    I though that it would be an interesting point.
    Yours sincerely

  6. #6 by Margalit Fliegelmann on December 18th, 2010

    Mr Maalouf, I read most of your books and specially enjoyed Origins. You said it was to be followed by your father’s story — since Origins was mostly your grandfather’s.

    I wm looking forward to the next one (and the one after that ..). Thanks for all your books!
    Margalit Fliegelmann, Jerusalem

  7. #7 by Jerlene Burgess on July 7th, 2011

    Doh! I was domain name shopping at and went to type in the domain name: and guess who already acquired it? You did! haha j/k. I was about to purchase this domain name but noticed it was taken so I figured I’d come check it out. Wonderful blog!

  8. #8 by James Delarosa on July 7th, 2011

    Would you mind if I quote a small number of your blogposts as long as I provide credit and sources returning to your blog: I am going to aslo make certain to give you the appropriate anchor text hyperlink using your blog title: My Web of Words – 14 – Hazard with Amin Maalouf. Please make sure to let me know if this is acceptable with you. Thankyou

  9. #9 by Hind on April 13th, 2012

    Re: the origin of the word ‘masari’. I recently visited Oman and found that the turban that is worn by Omani men is called ‘masar’ and am wondering if there might be a link.

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