"Take a Shufti" – A Journey in Words


by Dr Jehad Al-Omari



It is now almost thirty-five years ago that I began my career in the field of training. I walked into Farnham Castle in Surrey, U.K., to give my first lecture on Arab culture, called “The Arab Way”. It was the first of many lectures which I took over from one of my earliest mentors, an Arabist by the name of Peter Aylett. Peter had by then retired from the Oil business having served in many Arab countries including Iraq, Oman, and Qatar. He ended his career in Tripoli, Lebanon. His memories and, as we called them metaphorically, his “war stories” of the region were very revealing. When he decided to finally retire from training, I was fortunate enough to be bequeathed many of his training notes of which one piece remains etched in my memory. It was a short story in English on A4 paper of around 250 words. He included as many English words derived from Arabic as possible in an attempt to show the enormous contribution of Arab culture to Western Civilization.

Words such as algebra, algorithm, zero, alcohol, alkaline are all scientific words that have found their way into many European languages, indicating the impact of Arab scientific learning and discoveries on sciences such as mathematics, chemistry, physics and astronomy. One can google various articles easily to get an appreciation of the Arab contribution to science, especially during the Abbasids’ era when Baghdad in modern Iraq was the Enlightenment centre of the Middle Ages. The Arab presence in Andalusia in Spain played a key role in the subsequent European Renaissance of the 15th and 16th centuries. You can almost guess that any word in Spanish beginning with Al and El are from Arab origins such as algodón (cotton), almohada (pillow) and aldea(village). Al, by the way, is equivalent to the in Arabic. In fact, one of the most important Andalusian tourist monuments is the Alhambra Palace in Grenada - Alhambra derives from the Arabic alhamra, meaning red.

I am currently reading Sir Walter Scott’s masterpiece “Ivanhoe” One of the key characters in the plot, Brian de Bois-Guilbert, is a Knight Templar returning from Palestine. He is accompanied by two Arab guards and although there are no historic records proving this, it is very possible that as a result of the Crusader period many Arabs did actually make it to Britain and mingled and intermarried with the British. It is also well-known that many families in the Levant trace their roots to the Crusaders, some remaining Christian while others converted to Islam, but who are fully Arabized now.

As far as English words that derive from Arabic, I do have some favourite words and expressions whose history is either doubtful, funny or very weak and there lies their magic. For example, my Arabist British boss in a consultancy company that I worked with in the 90s was adamant that the British fox-hunting phrase Tally Ho!, denoting that a quarry has been sighted, is of Arabic origin and was introduced to English by the Crusaders: Ta’ali Hone means Come over here and is addressed to a female. It is not unusual that when words move from one language to another some letters are dropped where others are added, and the gender is confused. According to Wikipedia, the origins of Tally Ho are French but they could be wrong!

A funny phrase that found its way into English from Arabic is the phrase “Take a shufti”, meaning “Have a quick look”; shufti is from the Arabic word shuf, meaning to see. Sometimes this phrase would be used to point out a “bint”, a young girl or daughter in Arabic. I gather that these words started to be used in English by British, Australian and New Zealand soldiers stationed during the World Wars in the Middle East. “Take a shufti” is still used in English but I don’t advise you to call any woman a “bint”! It was a two-way process. At the same time as Arabic words were being absorbed into English, the colonial presence of the British and the French in the Arab World following the collapse of the Ottoman empire left the Arabic dictionary with many new words.

When I first went to live in the Arabian Gulf, I was surprised by the number of English words in use there, compared to the Levant. For example, the words bottle and glass survived intact into Arabic, whereas draiwel is derived from driver and laissen from license. My favourite word in the Kuwaiti Gulf vocabulary is wanette which means a pick-up car. The first pick-up to arrive in Kuwait early in the last century was a Ford Model One Eight (18) and it was transformed into wanette. In the Levant we use the word shofair coming from the French chauffeur.

Another favourite of mine is the Iraqi job title Lukaftari. This word derives from the English phrase “Look after it!” which is the instruction that British officers gave to young Iraqi men when they parked their cars unattended in the streets of Baghdad. Gradually a ‘profession’ came into existence for young men who would look after parked cars whilst the owners were conducting their official business elsewhere. To me, the Iraqis are the most versatile in the Arab world in fully adopting and adapting foreign words into their colloquial Arabic. This perhaps dates to the heyday of the Abbasid Empire when Baghdad was a cosmopolitan city attracting merchants, soldiers, scientists and scholars from around the world. Ironically, Iraq’s two national dishes are “Dolma” and “Bajjah” deriving from Greek and Turkish roots respectively. “Dolma” are made up of stuffed vegetables; “Bajjah” is sheep innards and feet.

Given that a large proportion of the Arab world was for almost five hundred years under Ottoman rule, it is not surprising that there are many words of Turkish origin in the Arabic dialects. These include oda (room), dolab (wheel), kupri (bridge), hanum (lady) and so on. Reversely, the number of Arabic words in the Turkish Language are far too many to count and some would go as far as to say that almost 40% of Turkish words is of Arabic origin. Indeed, when I was learning English in Bournemouth in 1978, I frequently used an English-Turkish Dictionary and I was able to benefit from it 90% of the time. The most famous Turkish borrowing from Arabic is Merhaba (Hello).

I was surprised when a friend of mine showed me a Maltese landing card when she travelled to Malta. I understood most of the questions (Name, Date and Place of Birth etc.). A Maltese friend of mine later on told me that it took his parents only one year to master Arabic when they moved to Saudi Arabia.

Combining two of my favourite subjects – food and etymology - is the English word artichoke.This is a vegetable that the Crusaders came across in the Levant in the 11th or 12th century which they took back with them to Europe having combined two words into one and reversed their order. Artichoke comes from Arabic kharshoof , meaning fish scales (look at the globe artichoke in the photograph above). In Spanish today it is called alcachofa (note the al prefix again). But in the Arab world it is the English word which is used, Arabized into ardhishoke, rather than the original Arab name. According to Amin Malouf in his book “The Crusaders through Arab Eyes”, the artichoke is one of several fruits and vegetables the Crusaders saw for the first time in the region - e.g. shallots, aubergines and apricots. Surprisingly, it is now very difficult to find locally-grown shallots here in the Levant. I should mention that the Jerusalem artichoke has nothing to do with Jerusalem and is not an artichoke. Apparently the name of this North American tuber comes from a mispronunciation of the Italian girasole (sunflower) given to it by Italian immigrants to the USA.

Another fictitious etymological explanation is the origin of the name Shakespeare. It is sometimes said that the former Libyan leader, Gadaffi, once argued that Shakespeare was an Arab whose real name was Shayk Zubair. No one takes this explanation seriously, of course.

There are also words that have entered both Arabic and English borrowing from one another that have now more or less disappeared. I mentioned bint. Another that seems to have gone out of use in the UK is mufti. It used to denote civilian clothes worn by those, like a soldier, sailor or airman, who were out of uniform. The same Arabic word means jurisprudent or religious legal expert. In Jordan I used to hear saweel for the same thing – what soldiers wore when not wearing their uniforms. It came from the English civil.

More recently, many English and Western words have now entered into Arabic such as radio, television, computer, tractor, etc. Today, in many Arab countries, instant coffees is simply known as nescafe. Iraqis go a step further and call chocolates and sweets nestalat after the Swiss company Nestlé. In Jordan there was a time when any assortment of sweets and toffees was called mackintosh from the British company Mackintosh, now owned by Nestlé.

There are still some in the Arab world who resist the encroachment of foreign words whether English, French or otherwise into Arabic. The reality is that Arabic and English are such dynamic languages that they are enriched rather than weakened when they import or borrow new words from each other or other languages. Long may it continue.

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