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LANGUAGE AND CULTURE

11 ‘French’ words that are more Arabic than French

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

11 'French' words that are more Arabic than French
Photo by Helena Lopes on Unsplash

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.

Café

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.

Sucre  

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.

Alcool 

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

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 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.

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.

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 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 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.

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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POLITICS

From De Gaulle to Macron: A history of French presidential swearing

French President Emmanuel Macron has grabbed headlines after saying that he wanted to 'emmerder' those who choose not to get vaccinated against Covid-19. But he is far from the first French president to slip into colourful language.

From De Gaulle to Macron: A history of French presidential swearing
Emmanuel Macron at the statue of Charles de Gaulle. Photo: Tolga Akmen/AFP

“I really want to piss off the unvaccinated,” French President Emmanuel Macron, drawing widespread condemnation for his choice of language.

In an interview with Le Parisien, he said that la bêtise (“stupidity”) was the “worst enemy of democracy”.

It is not the first time that the leader has used fruity language since being elected.

He has variously described the French as fainéants (lazy), les gens qui ne sont rien (people who are nothing), and Gaulois réfractaires (Gauls who are resistant to change). During a visit to a factory, he once said that protestors outside of a factory should go to work rather than foutre le bordel (“fuck things up” – or literally, “fuck up the brothel”). 

READ MORE Macron’s vow to ‘piss off’ unvaxxed was deliberate and won’t hurt his election chances

Serving as the Economy Minister under the presidency of François Hollande, he said “there were lots of illiterate people” during a visit to an abattoir. 

“In a certain way, we are like prostitutes: this job is about seducing,” told the Wall Street Journal in 2015, describing his former job as a banker. 

Les non-vaccinés, j’ai très envie de les emmerder – “I really want to piss off the unvaccinated

Other French leaders have dished out their fair share of provocative statements – some more discretely than others. 

François Hollande 

Macron’s predecessor, François Hollande, allegedly referred to the protesters and poor people as sans dents (toothless people). The revelation came after his 2017 election defeat and was disclosed by his ex-partner, Valérie Trierweiler – although we should probably point that she wasn’t exactly his biggest fan after he was caught having an affair with an actress while they were together. 

Nicolas Sarkozy 

Nicolas Sarkozy, who served as president from 2007-12 is perhaps the most prolific French head of state when it comes to outrageous language. 

During a visit to the 2008 Salon de l’Agriculture, he was shaking hands with people in the crowd.

One man told him Ah non, touche-moi pas! Tu me salis! (No, don’t touch me! You disgust me!). 

The President replied Eh ben casse-toi alors, pauv’ con ! (Well fuck off then, asshole).

Sarkozy described Hollande as an amateur, mal fagoté (shabbily dressed) and un président ridicule (a ridiculous president). He said of his own party that they were tous des cons (all idiots). He described Marine Le Pen as une hommasse (mannish/butch), Xavier Bertrand as un médiocre and François Fillon (who served as Prime Minister during Sarkozy’s presidency) as un loser

As Interior Minister, Sarkozy described the residents of Argenteuil as racaille (scum) after a visit to the Parisian suburb saw his convoy ambushed by people throwing objects from tower block.

Jacques Chirac

Jacques Chirac is best known internationally for his opposition to the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. 

While he may have been reluctant to launch military attacks, verbal assaults were his strong point. 

Before becoming President, he served as Prime Minister where he met with Margaret Thatcher at a European summit. After a disagreement, he told reporters: Mais qu’est-ce qu’elle veut en plus cette ménagère? Mes couilles sur un plateau? (What does this housewife want? My balls on a plate?)

Other highlights include:

Les emmerdes, ça vole toujours en escadrille –  Shits always fly together 

Les sondages, ça va ça vient, c’est comme la queue d’un chien – Polls come and go, like a dog’s cock

On greffe de tout aujourd’hui, des reins, des bras, un cœur. Sauf les couilles. Par manque de donneur – We transplant everything today, kidneys, arms, a heart. But not balls – because of a lack of donors. 

For a much longer list of Chirac’s insults, gaffes and hot-mic moments, click HERE.

Charles de Gaulle

As the founding father of the fifth republic, it would be wrong not to include Charles de Gaulle on this prestigious list. 

In 1968 the president used the word chienlit to describe the social disorder around the 1968 student uprisings. It translates as “shitting in your own bed”.

Adored by many, he also uttered some fairly contemptuous words about his countrymen, saying Les Français sont des veaux  – The French are calves (suggesting weak, easily led)

Macron is something of a fan of De Gaulle, even including one of the General’s books in the background of his official portrait, so perhaps he is also emulating his language? 

Georges Clemenceau 

Georges Clemenceau was the Prime Minister of France during the latter part of WWI. He was known to have a difficult relationship with his British counterpart, David Llyod George. He once said je pouvais pisser comme il parle (I could piss when he speaks). 

Clemenceau described one of his political rivals, the pacifist Jean Jaurès, as a “dangerous imbecile”. 

Napoleon 

Napoleon Bonaparte was betrayed by one of his ministers, Charles-Maurice de Talleyrand-Périgord, who sold state secrets to France’s enemies. 

After finding out, Napoleon reportedly said Vous êtes de la merde dans un bas de soie! (You are shit at the bottom of a silk stocking). 

Coincidentally, Talleyrand is the man credited with popularising escargots in France

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