If you’re a French language lover, you may already know that there are many English words like t-shirt, shopping, and parking have made their way into the French language.
However, what may come as a surprise is that some everyday French-sounding words like “aubergine” (eggplant), “café” (coffee), and even “cafard” (cockroach) are Arabic loanwords. Essentially, these French words were borrowed from the Arabic language, either directly or indirectly, through other languages, but most people are unaware of their Arabic origins.
Much of my sources for my research were found using the Le Robert dictionary.
What is a loanword (loan word?)
Before we move onto the list of Arabic loanwords hiding in your favourite French words, let’s briefly go over what a loanword is and the hidden secrets they can reveal if you know their etymology.
A loanword is simply a word borrowed from one language and used in another, left untranslated. This sometimes happens because it doesn’t exist in the borrower’s language or because it expresses a concept that can’t be easily expressed with existing words.
You probably already know a few untranslated loanwords taken from other languages, such as sushi, tapas, and pizza.
Each of these words has a meaning in its original language, which is sometimes forgotten or not known in its adopted language.
By understanding where a word comes from (its etymology), we can often get clues about its original meaning and how it evolved over time. We can also see how different languages and cultures influenced one another and how words have travelled from one language to another.
For example, when most people think of the Japanese word “sushi” (すし), they think of raw fish, but it actually means “vinegared rice” or “sour rice” in ancient Japanese due to the fact that the rice used with the fish was usually moistened with rice vinegar.
50 favourite French Words You Never Knew Were Borrowed from Arabic loanwords
How did Arabic words end up in the French language?
One of the reasons for this Arabic and French language connection is that France and many other European countries were heavily influenced by Arab culture during the Middle Ages. At that time, Arab scholars were highly regarded for their knowledge of math, science, philosophy, and literature, and their works were translated into many languages, including French.
As a result, many Arabic loanwords entered the French language directly, while others took a more circuitous route, first going through other languages, such as Latin, Italian or Spanish, before being borrowed into French.
Some linguists believe there may be as many as 600 common French words with Arabic origins, but that’s nothing compared to the number of Arabic loanwords in the Spanish language.
Did you know that roughly 8% or 4 000 words in the Spanish language were originally derived from Arabic? Portuguese has around 1,000-1,500 words with Arabic roots. And there are roughly 1000 words in the English language borrowed from Arabic, many of which came through the French language first.
The evolution of Frenchified Arabic loanwords
PRONUNCIATION: Borrowed Arabic words were changed to sound more French
When we borrow foreign words and use them as loan words, we usually don’t change them; however, we might say and pronounce them differently with different inflections, which is how Arabic loanwords evolved to sound more French than Arabic.
Take “café” for instance, which comes from the Arabic word “qahwa.” Most French speakers are not even aware that they are using Arabic loanwords in their daily conversations.
FALSE FRIENDS: Some words borrowed from Arabic have a different meaning than the original Arabic loanword
Certain French words that originated from Arabic have undergone a semantic shift, which means that their meaning has changed from the original loanword. This phenomenon of borrowing words from another language that appear to be related in meaning but have evolved to have different meanings is known as false friends or false cognates.
For instance, the French word for alcohol, “Alcool,” comes from the Arabic word “al-kuhl” which initially referred to a type of eyeliner.
List of Arabic loanwords borrowed into the French language:
I’ve grouped these borrowed Arabic words into logical groups, such as food,
(Many of the Arabic words in this list have the prefix Al, which just means “the”)
5 French drink-related Arabic loanwords
Alcool – (Alcohol) – الكحول (al-kuhul):
The word alcohol in English and French, which we know as an alcoholic beverage, was borrowed from Latin and then borrowed by the French and other European languages.
The term comes from “al-kuhul,” the Arabic word for antimony sulphide, which originally referred to a fine metallic cosmetic powder Middle Eastern women used as eye makeup in ancient times.
The term evolved and broadened to include any substance made similarly by vaporizing a solid and then allowing the vapour to condense, such as alcohol (distilled spirits.)
Today, “alcool” refers to any substance containing ethanol, produced through fermenting sugars with yeast to create alcoholic beverages.
Café – (Coffee) – قهوة (qahwa):
The French word for “coffee” may have been borrowed from the Arabic “qahwa,” or Turkish “kahevh” which in Arabic initially referred to a type of fermented wine made from coffee berries which were roasted and brewed with water. When the word was adopted into French and became “café,” it was no longer a fermented wine.
Some scholars disagree over the origins of the word. There is a possibility that the Arabic word for coffee, “qahwa,” was borrowed from the Kaffa Province of southwestern Ethiopia, considered the birthplace of coffee. Ethiopians are said to have been the first to realize the energizing effect of coffee.
Carafe – (Carafe/ jug / pitcher )- غرافة (gharafa):
When you ask the server to bring a pitcher of water to the table in France, you ask them to bring you “Une carafe d’eau.”
The French word “carafe” was borrowed from the Italian “caraffa” or Spanish “garrafa,” which most likely came from the Arabic “gharafa,” a large ladle-like drinking cup.” Or it may have come from the Persian “qarabah,” a pitcher with a handle and spout.
Limonade – (Lemonade) – ليمون (laymūn):
The word “lemonade” comes from the Arabic “laymūn,” which means lemon.
The suffix “ade” in the French word “limonade” is commonly used in the French language to form words for beverages and flavours such as limonade, marmelade, and orangeade.
Sirop – (Syrup) – شراب (sharāb or sarab):
In France, “sirop,” the French word for syrup, usually refers to a concentrated sweet liquid which is added to water to create a refreshing drink in different flavours known as “sirop à leau” (syrup with water.”
The French word for “syrup” comes from the medieval Latin sirōpus, which came from the Arabic word for a beverage.
7 French Food words of Arabic origins
Abricot – (Apricot) – البرقوق (al-barqūq):
Did you know that the 16th-century word for apricot in English used to be” abrecock” from middle French “aubercot,” which became “abricot” in modern French?
The French borrowed the Spanish word “albaricoque” and the Catalan word “albercoc,” which got their word from the Arabic word (al-barqūq,) “the plums.”
But Arabic borrowed their word from the Byzantine Greeks βερικοκκίᾱ (berikokkíā, “apricot tree”), who in turn took the late Greek word πραικόκιον (praikókion, “apricot”) who in turn took it from Latin “persica.”
Phew, what a peachy history.
Artichaut – (artichoke) – الخرشوفة (al-hursufa) or (al-ḵaršūfa)
The French word for artichoke took a while to get to France.
“Al-kharshūfa” comes from the now-extinct medieval language called Andalusian Arabic, spoken mainly in Spain and Portugal.
The word then became “éalcarchofa” in old Spanish. From there, it spread and became “éarticioccoé” and “éarcicioffoé” in Italian, “écarxof éin” Catalan, “écarchofaé” in Catalan, and finally, entered the French language as “éartichauté” and then “artichaut.”
Almost every language’s word for artichoke comes from Arabic.
Aubergine – (Eggplant) – الباذنجان (al-bāḏinjān):
“Aubergine,” which is also known as an eggplant in certain English-speaking countries, is native to India. Medieval Arabs introduced the aubergine to the Mediterranean region as “al-bāḏinjān where it became known as “alberginia” in Catalan and eventually became “aubergine” in the French language.
Amande – (Almond) – اللوز (al-lūz):
The almond tree is believed to be native to the Middle East regions of modern-day Iran, Turkey, and surrounding areas. When the Arabs introduced the almond to Europe, their word for almond was assimilated into Spanish, where it underwent pronunciation changes, which resulted in “almendra.” Later, The Spanish word was adopted into Old French as “alemande.” Over time, the “L” was dropped and “alemande” became “amande.”
Massepain – (Marzipan) – مرصبان (Marçabén or marṭabān):
The origins of the French word for Marzipan (Massepain) is believed to have been borrowed from either the Italian “marzapane” or German “marzipan,” which borrowed the word from either Persian “martabān,” or Arabic “marṭabān” which means spice-box in Arabic.
Marzipan is very popular in Europe, especially in Germany, Italy, Spain, Austria, and France. Most Western people think of Mazipan as a sweet confection made with ground almonds, powdered sugar and sometimes egg whites or almond extract that are shaped and painted to resemble fruits, animals, and even flowers.
However, in the Middle East, Marzipan is also used in savoury dishes, often combined with meats,
Orange – (Orange) – النارنج (an-nāranj):
Another borrowed word that took a long circuitous journey is the word for orange, the fruit and the colour. It entered French via Spanish and Italian, both of which got the word from the Arabic “nāranj,” which in turn came from the Persian “nārang.” But the Persian language actually borrowed the word from Sanskrit (नारङ्ग nāraṅgaḥ) “orange tree.”
Pastèque – (Watermelon) – بطيخ (baṭīkh):
The French word “Pastèque” comes from the Arabic “baṭīkh,” which means melon.
Watermelon is believed to have originated in Africa where it’s been cultivated for thousands of years. Documentation of watermelon has even been found in ancient Egyptian tombs and was also popular in ancient Greece and Rome.
From there, the fruit was introduced to other parts of Europe and eventually made its way to the Americas by European settlers.
Riz – (Rice )- رُز” (ruzz):
The French word for rice, “riz,” was borrowed from the Italian word “riso,” which may have been borrowed from the Arabic word “رُز” (ruzz).
Arab traders and scholars brought rice back to the Middle East after travelling to China and other parts of Asia. By the 14th century, the word “riz” became part of the French language, and over time, French cuisine adapted to incorporate rice into various dishes, including pilafs, risottos, and rice puddings. A famous rice cultivated in France comes from the Camargue region of France near Montpellier.
5 surprising seasonings and French spice names that originate from Arabic
Cumin – (Cumin) – كمون (kammūn):
The word “cumin” comes from the Arabic kammūn, which refers to the seeds of the cumin plant. Cumin is a spice that has been used in Middle Eastern and Mediterranean cuisine for centuries and was introduced to Europe during the Middle Ages.
Coriandre – (Coriander) – كزبرة (kuzbara):
The word “coriander” comes from the Arabic “kuzbara,” which refers to the coriander plant. The spice has been used in Middle Eastern, Mediterranean, and South Asian cuisine for centuries and was introduced to Europe during the Middle Ages.
Miel – (Honey) – مِلّ (mil) مَالَ (māla).:
The Arabic word “mil” originally referred to honey produced by bees.
Honey has been used as a sweetener and a medicine for thousands of years and was known to ancient civilizations, including the Egyptians and the Greeks.
Safran – (Saffron) – زعفران (za’farān):
Saffron is a dried Floral spice that is used in several French dishes such as Bouillabise and Paella. The French word for saffron is “Safran,” which comes from the Arabic word “za’farān.”
Sucre – (Sugar) – سكر (sukkar):
The French word for “sugar” comes from the old Italian word “zucchero,” which itself was derived from the Arabic “sukkar,” meaning “sugar.” “Sukkar” was borrowed from several languages, including Persian and Sanskrit, before being introduced to Europe by the Arabs during the Middle Ages.
4 Animals and wildlife words in French borrowed from Arabic:
Cafard (cockroach) – كافر (kafir):
The Arabic term “kafir” doesn’t mean cockroach in Arabic. It was mainly used in the context of religion to refer to someone who was an “unbeliever” or “infidel.”
The term is considered offensive and racially derogatory in many places, including South Africa, where it was used during apartheid to refer to people of non-Islamic faith as an insult, similar to the English word heathen.
The term “kāfir” had a broader usage beyond its religious meaning and was sometimes applied to unpleasant or disliked things. Eventually, the French adopted the Arabic word where it became “cafard,” to refer to a disgusting cockroach.
Gazelle – (Gazelle) – غزال (ghazāl):
A gazelle is a type of antelope which Arab people traditionally hunted, but later became a symbol associated with female beauty in Arabic literature. The Arab word for this beautiful creature, “ghazāl” first entered the Old Spanish language, then Old French as “Gazel,” and later became Gazelle in modern French. From there, the word travelled to the Americas in the 1600s.
Girafe (giraffe) زرافة (zarāfa):
The Italians borrowed the Arabic word “zarāfa” as “giraffa” and then the French as giraffe.
Interesting fact! Before the Giraffe became known as a giraffe, it was called a “camélopard” (Camel Leopard) from the Latin “camelopardus,” a contraction of “camelus” (camel) because of the long neck and “pardus” (leopard) because of the spots covering its body.
Safari – (Safari) – س (safara):
The word Safari which we now know to mean “an expedition to observe or hunt animals in their natural habitat,” became an English word before it became a French one via Swahili as “safari,” which was borrowed from the Arabic “Safara,” which means “travel.”
3 French Botany words you thought were French but are really Arabic
Jardin – (Garden) – جنة (janna):
From the Arabic “Janna,” which means “paradise.”
This reflects the importance of gardens in Islamic culture, where they are often associated with paradise and the afterlife. The word was first borrowed into Old French as “jart” or “gardin” and later evolved into the modern French term “jardin.”
Jasmin – (Jasmine) – ياسمين (yāsmīn):
Yāsmīn refers to the fragrant flower name in Arabic. The word was first borrowed into Old French as “Jasmin” and has remained essentially unchanged.
Jasmine is native to the Middle East and is widely used in perfumes and aromatherapy. It is also used in tea and cooking in some cultures.
Oranger – (Orange tree) – نارنج (nāranj):
Initially, the Arabic word “nāranj” referred to the bitter orange tree and its fruit. The term was borrowed into Spanish as “Naranja” and then into Old French as “orenge.”
5 of the most important Mathematics & technology terms that have Arabic origins
Most people are unaware of just how much Islamic civilization contributed to science, mathematics, and technology. Nevertheless, traces of their contribution are everywhere, including hidden in the etymology of certain words we use in French, English, and many other languages.
Here are the most notable French mathematic and technology words of Arabic origins.
Algorithme – (Algorithm – الخوارزمية (al-Khawarizmiya):
You can thank a 9th-century Persian mathematician and scientist named Muhammad for developing the concept of algorithms, which has ultimately been used in everything from Google search to the driving force behind self-learning AI technology.
The word “algorithm” comes from Muhammad’s last name, “al-Khwarizmi.” His works were then translated into Latin and other languages, including French.
Algèbre – (Algebra – الجبر (al-jabr):
The French word “Algèbre ” comes from the Arabic “al-jabr,” which means “the reunion of broken parts.”
Mathematician al-Khwarizmi, after whom the term algorithm is named, is also credited with introducing the concept of algebra to the Islamic world. Al-Jabar is the name of his landmark book, which established algebra as an independent discipline.
Tarif – (Tariff/Rate/Price) – تعريفة (taʿrīfah):
The word “tariff” comes from the Arabic “taʿrīfah,” which means “definition” or “list of prices.”
Chiffre (number) – صِفْر (sifr):
The Arabic word “sifr” meaning “zero” or “empty,” was borrowed into medieval Latin as “zephirum” or “cifra,” which gave rise to the word “chiffre” in French.
Zéro – (Zero) – صفر (sifr):
The word “zero” has the same Arabic root as the French word “chiffre.”
Arabic sifr, which means “empty” or “nothing,” was borrowed into medieval Latin as “zephirum” or “cifra,” The Italians borrowed the Latin “zephirum,” which became “zefiro” and then by the French as zéro. The concept of zero was developed in India and passed through the Arabic numeral system. The zero concept was introduced to Europe by Arab scholars during the Middle Ages.
7 French terms in medicine, science, nature and astronomy borrowed from Arabic
Alcaline – (Alkaline) – القلوي (al-qalawī):
The word “Alcaline ” comes from the Arabic “al-qalawī,” which means “ashes of saltwort.”
The term refers to a basic substance with a pH value greater than 7 on the pH scale.
Alchimie – (Alchemy) – الخيمياء (al-khīmiyā’):
The word “alchemy” comes from the Arabic al-khīmiyā,’ which refers to a form of chemistry that was practiced in the Middle Ages.
The Arabic term comes from the Greek word khēmeia, which means “art of transmuting metals.” The practice of alchemy involved attempts to transform base metals into noble metals, such as gold or silver, as well as efforts to find a universal elixir of life.
Almanach (Almanac) – المناخ (al-manākh):
The Arabic term originally referred to an Arabic astronomical table or calendar.
The word was introduced to Europe through medieval Arabic astronomy and astrology texts and later adapted to refer to annual publications containing information like calendars, astronomical data, weather predictions, and other useful information.
Ambre (Amber) – عنبر (‘anbar):
The Arabic word “anbar” was borrowed from Arabic into medieval Latin as “Ambra,” and then into French as “amber.”
Amber is a fossilized resin. Since ancient times, it’s been highly valued for its use in jewelry and perfumes. During the 17th century, using amber in perfumery became popular, which led to the word being adopted into the French language to refer to a type of
Elixir – (Elixir) – الإكسير (al-iksīr):
The word “elixir” comes from the Arabic al-iksīr, which means “the philosopher’s stone.”
The concept of an elixir that could turn base metals into gold and grant eternal life was a central idea in alchemy.
Laiton – (Brass) – لاصقون (laṣquwn):
The French word “laiton” comes from the Arabic “laṣquwn,” which refers to a type of alloy made of copper and zinc.
Zénith – (Zenith) – “سَمْت الرأس” (samt al-ra’s):
The French word “zénith” comes from the Arabic term “samt al-ra’s,” which means “direction of the head” or “path above the head.”
The term was originally used in astronomy to refer to the highest point in the sky directly above an observer. It was borrowed into medieval Latin as “cenit,” From there, it entered various European languages, including French. Today, “zénith” in French refers to the highest point or culmination of something, whether a career, an event, or an achievement.
2 Arabic loanwords for mythical creatures
Génie – (Genie) – جِنٌّ (jinnũ):
The French word for Genie entered the French language through a 1600s French translation of “Arabian Nights,” taking the Arabic word for “tutelary spirit” Jinni or jinnũ, the plural form of Jinn and turning it into the French Génie.
The Arabic word, “Jinn” refers to “someone possessed by a spirit, crazy.”
Goule – (Ghoul) – غول (ghūl ):
In Bedouin Arabic folklore, the “ghul” is said to be an evil demon-like being or monstrous humanoid being that feeds on human flesh. A male ghoul is referred to as “ghul,” while a female is called “ghulah.”
The word Goule entered the French language through the French translation by Antoine Galland of the Arabic text “The Thousand and One Nights.” In the original Arabic version, the Ghouls were nasty flesh-eating tricksters who kidnapped victims and lured lustful men by somehow transforming themselves into beautiful women. Antoine Galland’s French translation took liberties and changed the story so that the ghouls lived in cemeteries, robbing graves and feeding on corpses.
3 Arabic loanwords hidden in French Military words
Amiral – (Admiral) – أمير البحر (amir-al-bahr):
The Arabic term, “amir-al-Bahr, which means “commander of the sea,” was introduced to medieval Europe by Arab navigators and sailors. The Arabic word was first borrowed into Spanish as “Almirante” and then into Old French as “amiral.” In modern French, the term is still used to refer to a high-ranking naval officer.
Arsenal (Arsenal) – دار الصناعة (dār as-sināʿah):
The Arabic word originally referred to a workshop or factory and was borrowed into several European languages, including French, Italian, and Spanish, during the medieval period. In French, the word evolved to refer specifically to a military workshop or armoury where weapons and other equipment were manufactured, stored, and repaired.
The most famous Arsenal in France is the Arsenal of Paris, which was originally established in the 16th century and served as a major center of military production until the 19th century.
Assassin – (Assassin) – حشاشين (ḥashshāshīn):
The word “assassin” comes from the Arabic ḥashshāshīn, which refers to a group of people who carried out political assassinations in the medieval period.
4 French words related to music and arts of Arabic origins
Fanfare – (Fanfare / Marching band) – فنفار (fanfār):
The word “fanfare,” which can mean anything from a loud marching band or announcing the arrival of someone important with brass instruments. It comes from the Arabic word “fanfār” which is a type of military trumpet. It entered French via Spanish and Italian.
Guitare – (Guitar) – قيثارة (qīthārah):
Believe it or not, “guitar” is an Arabic loanword from the Arabic qīthārah, which is a stringed musical instrument.
Luth – (Lute) – العود (al-‘ūd):
The word “lute” comes from the Arabic al-‘ūd, which means “the wood.” The lute is a stringed musical instrument that originated in the Arab world.
Tambour – (Drum) – طُنْبُور (ṭunbūr):
The Arabic word for drum, “ṭunbūr,” which the French language borrowed, may have been influenced by the Persian word for “tabir.”
3 surprising French textile words borrowed from Arabic:
Coton – (Cotton) – قطن (qatn):
The Arabic loanword “qatn” originally referred to a type of fabric made from cotton fibres.
Cotton fabric production was widespread in ancient India, and the Arabic term was borrowed into various European languages, including French as “cotton” and Italian as “cotone.”
Gaze – (Gauze) – قزاز (qazza):
The French word “gaze” from the Arabic “qazza” is an Arabic loanword which originally referred to a type of silk fabric.
The fabric was produced in the Middle East and was known for its fine, sheer quality. The Arabic term was then borrowed into medieval Latin as “Gaza,” From there, it entered various European languages, including French. Over time, the term’s meaning evolved to include any fine, sheer fabric with a gauzy texture, regardless of its composition. Today, “gaze” in French refers to gauze, a thin, transparent fabric commonly used for medical dressings and other purposes.
2 Arabic loanwords for clothing which became part of the French language
Jupe (skirt) – جوبة (juba):
The French word “jupe” is another surprising Arabic loanword from Arabic “juba” which is a long North African and Middle East robe or cloak typically made of wool worn by both men and women.
Through trade and conquest during the medieval period, the garment was adopted by women in Europe, where it was modified to create the skirt we know today. The first recorded use of the word “jupe” in French dates back to the 14th century and has been used ever since.
Jaquette (jacket) – جكٌ (jakk):
The original Arabic word, meaning “chainmail,” was used to refer to the armour worn by Arab warriors and later adopted by the French to refer to a short coat.
2 French words for Trade & shopping of Arabic origins
Douane (customs) – ديوان (dīwān):
Dīwān is an Arabic loanword that means “office” or “administration.” This Arbaic word was used to refer to the tax collectors in the Arab world and was later adopted by the French to refer to the customs office.
Magasin – (Store, Warehouse)- مخزن (makhzan):
The French word “magasin,” which means store in French, entered French via the Italian “magazzino” (“storehouse”), ultimately from the Arabic “makhani, “which also means “storehouse.”
In the English language, it became Magazine, which also initially meant a store or warehouse but eventually became the word for a magazine, the kind you read.
2 Arabic Loanwords that became French words for popular games
Échec – (Checkmate) – شاه مات (shāh māt):
The word “Échec” comes from the Arabic shāh māt, which means “the king is dead.”
The term initially referred to the end of a
Hasard – (Hasard) – الزهر (az-zahr)
“The French word “hasard” is from the popular Arabic expression “az-zahr,” which means “dice.” During the Middle Ages, the term referred to the game of dice itself and, by extension, a lucky roll in the game.
In 15th century France, the word took on a slightly negative meaning of “risk,” “danger,” and chance, as in the game of chance, ” jeu de hasard.” Gambling in France is actually quite popular.
5 Miscellaneous Arabic Loanwords that made it into the French vocabulary.
Alcôve – (Alcove) – القبة (al-qubba):
The word “Alcôve” comes from the Arabic “al-qubba,” which means “dome.” The word entered French via Spanish and Italian.
Azur – (Azure) – لازورد (lazaward):
The word “azur” comes from the Arabic word, which means “blue.” The word entered French via Italian and Spanish.
Bougie – (Candle) – بوجية (bujiya):
The French word for “candle” is believed to have originated from the Arabic word “bujiya,” a type of candle that was made from a particular wax found in North Africa. The term was later adopted into French to refer to a candle or wax taper.
Divan – (Divan/Sofa/Couch) -ديوان (diwan):
The French word Divan, which means sofa or couch in English, is based on the Arabic “diwan,” a type of seating furniture typically found in Middle Eastern and North African cultures.
Sofa – (Sofa) – صفة (suffa):
The French word “sofa” originally referred to a raised platform with cushions and carpets for seating in Arabic.
Wrapping up Arabic loanwords in the French language
From everyday words like “café” and “orange” to more specialized terms like “alcool” and “magasin,” these Arabic loanwords have become engrained in the French language.
Understanding the origins of these French words can help us appreciate the complex history of the French language and its connections to other cultures.