You've Probably Never Heard The Surprisingly Maltese-Sounding Origins Of These English Words

Semitic languages are everywhere y'all

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The English language just passed the 1,000,000 word mark back in 2009. English vocabulary has gotten so large primarily because it has been borrowing words from other languages for centuries, including a fair number of Semitic words Maltese speakers are familiar with.

1. Algebra

Most of algebra involves calculating unknown quantities from known ones, often after some rearranging of parts. 'Il-ġabra' literally means "the collection", or more broadly, reunion of broken pieces.


2. Jar

The wide mouthed cylindrical container got its name from the 'jarrar' Arab traders probably used.

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3. Checkmate

The etymology of checkmate, death of a king in a game of chess, is popularly attributed to the phrase sheikh miet (the king is dead). Sheikh is an Arabic honorific that denotes royalty, but it's also etymologically linked to 'xiħ'.

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4. Hazard

Chances are, if you were a North African Berber, chess wasn't your game. The predominant game in the region used two cast dice and was called Azzard. The dice often created a 50/50 chance, and we still have this high stakes terminology preserved in Maltese as "logħoba tal-azzard".

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5. Arsenal

The football club got this name because it was founded by munitions workers who worked at the Royal Arsenal, making munitions for the British Armed forces. But arsenal entered the English language from the Arabic dar tas-sengħa, or "house of manufacturing arms".

6. Tariff

Tariffs are prices of a variety of things from transport tickets to water bills. It was borrowed into English from the Arabic word ta'rif, meaning "to make the price known". We stilll use tagħrif in Maltese to mean the same thing.

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7. Safari

If there's an award for one that's managed to hide in plain sight, this is it. Wealth British tourists first encountered safari from Swahili speakers, who in turn had borrowed it from the Arabic safar, meaning journey.

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8. Magazine

Similarly on the arms theme, the magazine, or the place where all those arms are stored, also comes from the semitic "maħzen".

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Written By

Charles Mercieca

Charles Mercieca's interest in something tends to rise dramatically if he can plot it.