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Arizona haboobs cause quite the hubbub

November 2011

Not since the debacle some years ago when some Americans suggested renaming French fries “freedom fries” because of France’s lack of support for the invasion of Iraq, have we seen the same level of linguistic jingoistic meshugas. Let me explain.

This summer, Arizona experienced massive dust storms caused by thunderstorms emitting enormous gusts of wind across the desert.

Some local weathermen referred to this phenomenon as a “haboob,” which is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “A violent and oppressive wind which blows at certain seasons in the Sudan, and which brings with it sand from the desert.”

Haboob derives from the Arabic habub, “blowing furiously.” No apparent controversy there, and yet the use and derivation of haboob prompted several angry letters from Arizonans.

Typical of such was the following to the Arizona Republic: “After living here for 57 years, I have seen an ‘Arizona dust storm’ or two. I am insulted that local TV news crews are now calling this kind of storm a haboob. How do they think our soldiers feel coming back to Arizona and hearing some Middle Eastern term?”

This sentiment was echoed by other irate letters to the editor.

To be consistent, however, there are a number of other words that should be avoided to protect the sensitivities of Arizonans:

Algebra: This word derives from the Arabic al-jebr, which means “the reuniting of broken parts.” When algebra entered the English language, it referred to the setting of broken bones, and sometimes to the fractures themselves.

As late as 1623, we find an OED citation that only refers to algebra as “bone-setting,” but the mathematical sense of the word entered our lexicon in the 16th century and quickly became the dominant sense.

Zero: “Zero” ultimately descends from the Arabic çifr, from which we also get the word “cipher.” Its first citation to denote the number 0 in English occurs in Edward Grimstone’s 1604 translation of José de Acosta’s widely cited Historia natural y moral de las Indias, where he states: “They accompted their weekes by thirteeene day marking the dayes with a Zero or cipher.”

As mathematicians remind us, the invention of nothing (or zero) was one of the more important discoveries in math history.

Alcohol: Cleopatra probably applied an antimony paste to her eyelids called al-kuhl, the al part meaning “the” and the kuhl ending meaning “powdered antimony.”

Arab alchemists (another Arabic word) gave the name al-kuhl to any finely pulverized powder obtained by sublimation and thus to all compounds obtained through the distillation process. The word came into English as “alcool,” referring to any fine powder. Given the Islamic prohibition against drinking alcohol, it is ironic that this word derives from Arabic.

However, it was not until the 19th century that the word alcohol became used exclusively to denote the West’s favourite liquid.

Magazine: This word ultimately derives from the Arabic makh zin, the plural of makhzan, “storehouse.” Its first sense in the OED is “a place where goods are laid up; a storehouse for goods,” and this sense of storing lives on in its ammunition reference: a gun’s magazine as a holder of bullets or cartridges.

Its sense as a periodical emerged almost accidentally in 1731 when the editors of the Gentleman’s Magazine used the word because they said that they intended “to treasure up, as in a Magazine, the most remarkable Pieces.” The term caught on almost immediately to refer to a periodical publication and this became the dominant sense of the word.

So those who feel insulted by the borrowings from Arabic should bear in mind that English didn’t get to be the global language it is today by being pure. Long may it sleep around.

Howard Richler’s latest book is Strange Bedfellows: The Private Lives of Words.



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