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.
- 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 [↩]
- 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’. [↩]