May 26, 2024

Kifaransa |’French’ words that aren’t really French at all

In the midst of conversing in French on a daily basis, one might be surprised to discover the subtle infusion of Arabic words into their speech. French, akin to many languages, boasts a significant Arabic influence, with only Italian and English exerting a greater impact on its linguistic landscape.

Approximately 500 French terms derive their origins from Arabic, with around 100 seamlessly integrating into everyday French dialogue, often eluding speakers’ awareness of their non-French heritage.

Here’s an insightful glimpse into some of the most prevalent Arabic-derived words in French:


A quintessential element of French culture, the term for “coffee” in French, “café,” finds its etymological roots in the Arabic word “qahwa.” While Venetian traders introduced “qahwa” to Europe in the 12th century, it wasn’t until 1657 that coffee beans graced the Parisian café scene. Today, coffee holds a cherished place in the French culinary repertoire, often accompanied by a croissant, a slice of bread with jam (tartine de confiture), or even a cigarette.


The French adopted “sucre” (sugar) from the Italian word “zucchero,” which, in turn, originated from the Arabic “sukkar.” Credit is due to the Arabs not only for the word itself but also for introducing sugar to Europe during their invasions of Sicily and Andalusia in the 7th and 8th centuries.


The French term for “alcohol,” “alcool,” stems from the Arabic word “kohl,” initially denoting a “very fine antimony powder.” Over time, the Spaniards transformed the term into “alcohol” during the 16th century, referring to “a very fine and pure element” obtained through distillation—a crucial ingredient found in French wine, cider, pastis, and a plethora of other libations.


The concept of a “store” or “supermarket” in French, “magasin,” owes its origin to the Arabic term “maḵāzin,” signifying a “storeroom” or “storehouse.”


The French word for “candle,” “bougie,” was imported from Béjaïa, a small town east of Algiers, renowned for its commercial significance. Once a bustling trading hub, Béjaïa earned the nickname “Bougie” after the wax used in candle-making—a testament to the town’s historical prominence.

Stay tuned for more intriguing insights into the Arabic influence on the French language, showcasing the rich tapestry of cultural exchange and linguistic evolution.

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