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Al-Idrisi’s world map,1154. Go here to read Time’s A History of the World in 10 Maps.

What do the following words have in common: orange, hazard, talisman? Can you spot a connection between the colour crimson, ghoul and a giraffe? Or perhaps spinach, sugar and an assassin? Need a mattress to recline on while pondering these connections or perhaps your inclination lies in a sofa?

Words have a past, and like us a family. Some words migrate travelling long distances. Others stay firmly rooted in their place of birth. Some have families filled with offspring, others are from small families and are self contained. All words have stories. Uncover the stories wrapped around the roots and in doing so consider the past. Words are artifacts of a culture as much as pots, paintings, documents and bones. Words are a window into another culture and time. This was how we began this week’s inquiry.

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We started with a list of words on the board. No mention of where they had come from. I just asked students which word they would like to explore. Students immediately began to hypothesize morphemes, before consulting the Online Etymology Dictionary. Many wrestled with suffixes eventually concluding that the majority of words up for consideration are free base elements today. They noticed that the majority of these words were nouns. Below are the hypothesises and stories of the journeys of a mere five of the forty words we investigated.


Eventually two students traced the journey of crimson back to the dried bodies of a small scale insect known as kermes:قرمز qirmiz found on  European oaks. This Arabic word in turn came from from Sanskrit krimi-ja meaning ‘produced by a worm or worm born’. Arabic qirmazi means red colour and became cremisinus in Medieval Latin then passed into Old Spanish as cremesin and from there it was a leap across the English channel in the 15th century to eventually settle into the orthographic structure we know today as crimsonCarmine arrived in English later, 1712, also from Arabic قرمز qirmiz via French carmin. Another word springing from this same Arabic root and entering England in 1480, is from Italian: cramoisy. This archaic word was mostly used in Scotland according to the OED.

A crimson diversion:

My students and I have recently begun to explore the OED historical thesaurus. I wondered what words were used to describe this colour before the 15th century.We discovered 39 words for this colour including crimson and carmoisy. The range is from the earliest blood-red an OE compound blodread to the most recent in the 1950’s: wine. Tuly, attested in English since 1398, was used to describe this colour but exclusively in reference to silk. The OED suggests this was perhaps in reference to fabrics imported from Toulouse. Another word murrey, first attested in English in 1400, from post classical Latin muretum , murretum meaning mulberry-coloured cloth, was used to describe this colour in heraldry and has since faded out of regular use.

Many of the synonyms for crimson, as the student above had hypothesized, use blood metaphors.  Bloody (attested in OE), saguine from 1382, sanguinolent 1480, saguineous 1520, blood-coloured, haemetine 1658, gory 1822, laky 1849 which ‘pertains to lake; of the colour of lake; spec. of the blood, when the red corpuscles are acted upon by some solvent.’ (OED). In 1616 Shakespeare used incarnadine  in Macbeth, its root from Latin caro, carnis : flesh. In the 1590’s incarnadine meant flesh coloured. However, with Macbeth’s chilling lines from Act II sc. ii:’This my Hand will rather, The multitudinous Seas incarnardine, Making the green one red,’ the association from here on is with blood and the colour of blood.

Other words for ‘crimson’ use jewels as the comparison: rubied, rubious 1616, and grenat referring to the colour of garnets, attested from 1851. The other metaphor used to describe this colour is ‘wine’ so vineaceous 1668, claret-coloured 1779, and the well known wine-dark,1855: ‘of the colour of deep-red wine; used esp. to render Greek οἴνοψ as an epithet of the sea; occas. (poet.) as n.'(OED). However, it is ‘crimson’ with its Arabic origins that is the most frequently used and familiar for this colour.



‘The richest commoner in England,’ William Beckford painted by George Romney in 1782.

As the student above indicated the word ghoul is Arabic in origin, غول ghūl, referring to an evil grave-robbing, corpse consuming spirit. This word entered English in 1786 via the translated novel Varthek by William Beckford. Beckford wrote this novel in French during a period of intense interest in orientalism. He claimed to have written this in a single sitting of three days and two nights. it is a tale of the supernatural filled with ghouls and tells of the powerful Caliph Vathek who seeks forbidden knowledge aided by his evil mother. Arabic غول ghūl, has also led to the name Algol, the demon star, the blinking star in the Perseus constellation located at the point of Medusa’s head. The Arabic etymon has even inspired Batman’s nemesis Ra’s Al-Ghul. For more diversion read about the extremely wealthy William Beckford , known as the ‘richest commoner in England’ renowned art collector and folly builder- Fonthill Abbey and Lansdown Tower

Zenith, hazard and apricot

Zenith is attested in English from the 14th century from an Arabic root samt ar-ras meaning ‘path over the head’. Samt created a ‘path’ from its Arabic origins into Old Spanish as zenit and Old French as cenit and once in English becoming zenith. Apparently there was a misreading from the transliteration of the Arabic etymon where the ‘m’ became ‘ni’ (Online Etymology Dictionary)The sense of becoming the highest point emerged in the 16th century. The plural form of the Arabic root samut led to azimuth.

Hazard can be used both as a noun and verb. It arrived in English first as a noun in the 13th century for a game played with dice. It’s Arabic in origin, perchance! The O.E.D. states:’The origin of the French word is uncertain, but its source was probably Arabic. According to William of Tyre, the game took its name from a castle called Hasart or Asart in Palestine, during the siege of which it was invented: see Littré s.v. The true Arab name of this castle appears to have been ‘Ain Zarba (Prof. Margoliouth). Mahn proposes vulgar Arabic az-zahr or az-zār ‘die’ (Bocthor); but early evidence for this sense is wanting.

It entered English via Old French hasard, hasart, as the Online Etymology Dictionary suggests ‘possibly from Spanish ‘azar’ meaning an unfortunate throw of cards or dice,’. The claim for the Spanish azar is said to be Arabic al-zahr although the etymologist Klein doubts this suggesting Arabic ‘yasara’: ‘he played at dice’. Regardless, the word in its travels through French acquired the letter ‘d’ through confusion with the <-ard> suffix. Read more here. Again thanks to the O.E.D.Historical Thesaurus, we discovered that jeopardy, although not of Arabic origins, is a synonym for hazard and also a game of chance. Jeopardy,according the O.E.D., is also attested in English from the 13th century with a sense of ‘harm or risk’ developing in its denotation from 1374.  Read more here.

Apricot tells a tale of a long journey and Arabic contact. The fruit originally Chinese in origin was known in the Roman world as prunum Arminiacum or malum Arminiacum (Ayto). This term was replaced by malum praecocum meaning early ripening apple. Praecocus, Ayto notes,  is a variant of praecox leading eventually to English precocious etymologically meaning pre-cooked. The Latin word praecocum moved into a variety of languages making its way via Byzantine Greek berikokkonπρεκόκκια and βερικόκκια plural, and Arabic al biquq to Spanish albaricoque and Portuguese albricoque to Catalan abercoc and then into English in the 15th century as abrecock. The O.E.D. tells us that:  ‘The change in English < abr- to apr- was perhaps due to false etymology; Minsheu 1617 explained the name, quasi, ‘in aprīco coctus’ ripened in a sunny place: compare the spelling abricoct’. The Roman name prunum Arminiacum was applied to apricots based on the belief that fruit originated in Armenia, although now it is believed to have originated in China or even India as early as 3000BC.  It became known as a colour only from 1906.

Yes all these words had contact with Arabic. I had included abacus amongst the list of words to investagte, mistakenly assuming it to be Arabic. However, this word turned out to be from Hebrew as one student informed me and as such from the Semitic group of languages of which Arabic is a branch. Semitic languages are from the Afro-Asiatic language family. Watch below as students share the timeline of these words reflecting Arabic contact :




We discovered through these words the influence of Arabic as a significant contributor to the English lexicon. Many of these words reflect the scientific, astronomical, agricultural, economic, mathmatical, medical and architectural brilliance of the Golden Age of Islam. There were two periods of flourishing intellectual activity the first in Baghdad and the second in 12th and 13th century in Spain.  We discovered that Baghdad 1,200 years ago was the capital of the Islamic world and a flourihing intellectual centre. We discovered that the Caliphs Al-Rashid, Al-Ma’mun, Al Mu’tadhid, and Al-Muktafi took a passionate interest in collecting global scientific knowledge.  They gathered Muslim scholars to create the House of Wisdom, an intellectual academy that by the time of Caliph Al-Mu’uman had extended to include sections for each scientific branch so that the House was flowing with scholars. These scholars came from a variety of places, speaking a variety of languages Arabic, Farsi, Hebrew, Syriac, Aramaic, Greek, Latin and Sanskrit.Theyworked to translate the older writings into Arabic so they could build on and discuss the knowledge.

First in Baghdad and later in Cordoba and Toledo, Arabic philosophy and science  conserved Greek knowledge and set in place the foundations for the Renaissance and the scientific revolution. Libraries in Baghdad and Cordoba are reputed to have contained over 400,000 books. Spanish Christians conquered Cordoba in 1236 and when the Mongols sacked Baghdad in 1256 (or 1258) the Islamic Empire fell. Trade routes became dangerous. ‘Urban life broke down.  Individual communities drew in upon themselves in feudal isolation. Science and philosophy survived for a while in scattered pockets, but the Golden Age of Islam was at an end’.(Mathews)  Islam had stressed the importance and respect for learning. Scholars of many faiths- for a time worked side by side and while claims of harmony may be exaggerated as religious minorities did not share the same rights as Muslims, Jewish and Christian scholars nevertheless made intellectual contributions with the support of Muslim rulers. It is timely to consider these flourishing intellectual communities when reflecting on the ignorance and fear of knowledge and education that lies behind acts of terrorism today.

Read about the remarkable House of Wisdom here, watch here. Look at a timeline here. Read about Islamic Spain here.

The final words of this post concerning words and their journeys into English, we return to the map above and its cartographer, Abu Abdallah Muhammad Ibn Muhammad Ibn Abdallah Ibn Idris al-Qurtubi al-Hasani or Al Idrisi. Famed as both a cartographer and botanist, he was born in Ceuta, Spain, in 1099 A.D. and educated in Cordoba.

Al Idrisi travelled widely through Africa, Asia and Europe gathering plants and geographic data. He gathered eye witness accounts from travellers, sailors, merchants. His commission by the Norman King Roger II of Sicily to create a current map of the world led to an 18 year stay in Sicily and the creation of remarkable geographic references including a silver globe  for King Roger II, and ‘The Nuzhat al-mushtāq fi’khtirāq al-āfāq (Arabic: نزهة المشتاق في اختراق الآفاق‎, lit. “the book of pleasant journeys into faraway lands“), known as the Tabula Rogeriana (lit. “The Book of Roger” in Latin Al-Kitab al-Rujari (Roger’s Book).This is was a geographic encyclopaedia, containing information not only on Asia and Africa, but also Western countries. The book was written in both Arabic and Latin showing the world as a sphere and dividing it into seven climate zones with details about each. Of Britain he noted, it “is set in the Sea of Darkness. It is a considerable island, whose shape is that of the head of an ostrich, and where there are flourishing towns, high mountains, great rivers and plains. This country is most fertile; its inhabitants are brave, active and enterprising, but all is in the grip of perpetual winter.” Read more here Tabula Rogeriana.