By: The local
If you’re speaking French on a daily basis, chances are that you are actually using several Arabic words – probably without even knowing it.
French is strongly influenced by Arabic. Only Italian and English have influenced the French language more.
Roughly 500 French words come from Arabic, and about 100 of these have become so integrated into the French everyday language that most people don’t even know that they weren’t French to begin with.
Here’s a look at some of the most common ones.
One of France’s favourite drinks – coffee – comes from the Arabic word qahwa. Venetian traders brought qahwa with them to Europe in the 12th century, but the coffee bean didn’t make it to Parisian cafés before 1657. Coffee is today an important part of the French diet, often accompanied by a croissant, a tartine de confiture (bread with jam) or perhaps a cigarette.
The French borriwed their sucre (sugar) from the Italian word zucchero, which the Italians got from the Arabic sukkar. We can thank the Arabs not just for the word, but also for bringing sugar to Europe when they invaded the Italian regions of Sicily and Andalusia back in the 7th and 8th century.
The French word for alcohol comes from the Arabic word kohl, which was used many centuries ago to signify a “very fine antimony powder” – referring to the kohl that some people used as make-up.
In the 16th century the Spaniards took the term and turned it into alcohol, which then meant “a very fine and pure element” of which the “essence was obtained through distillation” – which we today know as the magic little ingredient found in French wine, cider, pastis and a host of others.
Pastis may be a symbol of Frenchness, but alcohol is a foreign import. Photo: AFP
‘Store’ or ‘supermarket’ is another word the French borrowed from the Arabs, who use maḵāzin for “storeroom” or “storehouse.”
The French word for ‘candle’ was imported in from Béjaïa, a small town east of Algiers. Back in the old days, Béjaïa was a commercial hotspot that exported lots of merchandises. The town was nicknamed ‘Bougie’ after the wax used to make candles.
While razzia (raid) is Italian, the Italians borrowed it from the Arabic ghazwa, which referred to an ‘enemy invasion’.
Jupe (skirt) is another French word that, although it was not directly borrowed from Arabic, came from the Italian word giubba, which again was inspired by the Arabic jubba.
At its origin, jubba referred to the toga, originally worn by men rather than women. But by the time it made French language guardian Académie Francaise’s Dictionary, back in 1694, it had become an item of women’s clothing.
Today, niquer is a very colloquial French way of saying ‘having sex’. It’s similar to saying ‘screw’ in English, Like ‘screw’, niquer can be used as a way to say you were ‘screwed over’ (je me suis fait niquer).
However, niquer originated as north African slang – nik meant ‘making love’ and nikāḥmeant ‘coitus’ – through a dialect known as ‘sabir’, which was a mix of Arabic, Italian and Spanish spoken by merchants and sailors at the time.
It exists in Italian and Spanish too (meschino and mezquino), but comes from the Arabic miskīn, which means poor. French people use it about someone who ‘lacks generosity’, meaning someone who is is ‘petty’ or ‘stingy’. It’s most commonly used among French people who also speak Arabic, so it’s one of the many words that originated in the French suburbs among immigrants and spread out into wider use.
Seum comes from the Arabic word sèmm, which means venom. J’ai le seum is today a common French way of saying ‘I’m upset.’
Kiffer is popular French slang for ‘love’. Je te kiffe means ‘I love you’ although not in the romantic sense, more like ‘adore’, ‘worship’ or ‘dig’. For example, you would say that you kiffe someone’s music if you find it really cool.
However kif is also originally Arabic, meaning ‘pleasure’ or ‘joy’. It was apparently used when talking about the joyous effect of smoking tobacco or stronger substances (in Egypt, keif meant hashish).