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14 French words that are originally Arabic

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Ingri Bergo - [email protected]
14 French words that are originally Arabic
A café might be the epitome of Frenchness, but the word itself comes from Arabic. Photo by LUDOVIC MARIN / AFP

If you're speaking French on a daily basis, chances are that you are actually using several Arabic words - probably without even knowing it.

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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.

You might think that these phrases are mostly 'young person slang' used by people in France's multi-racial banlieues, but in fact many of them have been used in France for centuries, proving the lasting influence of the Arabic language.

Here's a look at some of the most common ones.

Café

The corner café with its terrace tables is an icon of Frenchness, but in fact the word for the drink after which it is named comes from Arabic.

The word 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 Paris 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 and the café is an integral part of French social life.

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Sucre  

The French borrowed 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.

Alcool 

Inhabitants of the landmass now known as France have been fermenting stuff to make alcoholic drinks for millennia, but the word alcool is a more recent import.

The French word for alcohol comes from the Arabic word kohl, which was used many centuries ago to signify a “very fine antimony powder” - the word kohl is still used in both English and French to describe a type of eye make-up.

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But in the 16th century the Spaniards took the term kohl 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.  

Magasin

‘Store’ or ‘supermarket’ is another word the French borrowed from the Arabs, who use maḵāzin for "storeroom” or “storehouse.” 

Bougie 

The French word for 'candle' was imported from Béjaïa, a small town east of Algiers. Béjaïa was once a commercial hot-spot that exported lots of merchandises. The town was nicknamed 'Bougie' after the wax used to make candles.

Razzia 

While razzia (raidis Italian, the Italians borrowed it from the Arabic ghazwa, which referred to an 'enemy invasion'. 

Jupe

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.

The above examples are centuries old and have come to France by various, sometimes convoluted, routes but there are also examples of more modern imports to France via its immigrant community.

France has a significant number of Arabic speakers, many of whom are immigrants or children of immigrants from France's former colonies including Algeria, Morocco or Tunisia.

Arabic words or phrases are often used as slang in the racially mixed areas cities or suburbs, before spreading out to a wider population.

Niquer

Today, niquer is a very colloquial French way of saying ‘having sex’. It's similar to saying ‘screw’ in English. Like ‘screw’, niquer can also be used as a way to say you were ‘screwed over’ (je me suis fait niquer) or to say 'screw you' as an insult.

However, niquer originated as north African slang - nik meant ‘making love’ and nikāḥ meant ‘coitus’ - through a dialect known as ‘sabir’, which was a mix of Arabic, Italian and Spanish spoken by merchants and sailors at the time.

In modern France you might see nique going back to its Arabic roots and being spelled nik, especially in graffiti - as in the below 'screw Bardella' - referring to the far-right leader Jordan Bardella.

Photo: The Local
 

Mesquin 

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

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.'

You can read more about seum here.

READ ALSO: Eleven phrases that will let you complain like the French

Kiffer

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).

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Cheh

This one is most commonly used by French children - it's playground speak meaning something like 'in your face' or 'take that' but you will see it used by adults too, mostly young people who want to say 'serve you right' in a deliberately childish way.

It comes from the Arabic word pronounced in the same way.

Wesh

This one has been around since the 1990s and came into mainstream French through hip-hop, although it remains a phrase much more likely to be used by young people.

It comes from the Arabic 'wesh rak' which means 'how are you' but in French it means more like 'yo', 'hey' 'wow'.

Bled

In Arabic this has a simple meaning - it means town. In French, however, it's a little more complicated and has two meanings - the first means a person’s village or country of origin. You’ll mostly hear this from first or second generation immigrants in France, when they are talking about the area they or their family came from.

The second is used to refer to a place - a small town or village that is boring or isolated. In English we might say 'a one horse town' or 'a backwater' place.

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