The Moor’s Parting Gift: 14 Spanish Words of Arabic Origin
Latin and Arabic are not only two different linguistic patriarchs but also two different worlds. It would be impossible to see any kind of overlap between the two language families. Until you consider Spanish. Spanish can easily be seen as the East-meets-West of linguistics. In case you didn’t know, the Iberian Peninsula was under Arab occupation once upon a time. That’s right, the Arabs once ruled a piece of Europe! Hard to believe given the current state of affairs, right? What do I say, times change.
So when the Arabs came to Spain around 700 CE, the place was ruled by Germanic Visigoths and the locals spoke a language that sounded more like Latin than modern Spanish. It was called Vulgar Latin. The Arabs who came to Spain were known as Moors and would stick around until around the 16th century. When you spend that kind of time in a foreign land with a foreign tongue, some amount of linguistic bastardization is inevitable. Although the Moors tried hard to keep their language intact, which they did to a great extent, a lot of inter-mixing did take place.
Arabic remained the principal tongue of the region between eighth and the thirteenth centuries. During this period, the pre-existing Vulgar Latin tongue evolved into four principal dialects:
- Aragonese: This was the language spoken around Aragon and Navarre.
- Leonese: As the name implies, this one developed in the kingdom of Leon and was heavily influenced by Arabic in terms of vocabulary.
- Mozarabic: This was spoken by the Christians under Arab rule and became the principal vehicle for Arabic words entering Spanish. Contrary to what you might have guessed, Mozarabic wasn’t a Semitic language; it was Romance just like Spanish, French, or Italian!
- Castilian: This is what would later develop into Spanish as we know it today.
Other dialects took shape too – such as Provençal and Catalan – but they weren’t influenced by Arabic. Castilian is still the name used for the Spanish language by many purists. Mozarabic went out of currency around the twelfth century but not before it had injected copious amounts of Arabic into the Castilian vocabulary.
More than 8% of the entire Spanish vocabulary today comes from Arabic which is quite a big deal. To give you some perspective, that’s about one word out of every twelve. Perhaps the single most important legacy of the Moorish influence on the Spanish vocabulary is some 200 warfare and clothing-related words and a bunch of place-names here and there. Most Arabic loanwords in Spanish happen to be nouns. There are very few adjectives or verbs and only one preposition, hasta. The fact that the southern coast of Spain is less than 10 miles from Morocco, an Arabic-speaking country, helps keep this connection alive and kicking. Here, we will try to learn some of the most well-known contributions of Arabic to the Spanish vocabulary. Please do note, however, that Arabic uses a non-Roman script and the transliteration of Arabic words here is based on my own perception and approximation rather than any agreed-upon standard.
1. Aceite (Oil)
Aceite refers to oil of all kinds in Spanish, be it culinary or auto-related. Back in the day, the only use of oil was in food. And the only source thereof was olives. Olive oil happens to be a staple in the Mediterranean kitchen even today. Az-zaytūn is the Semitic term for olive. That is what we get zayt, Arabic for oil, from. Zayt entered Andalusia with the Moors and evolved into azeyte of Old Spanish with time. This further morphed into aceite as we know it today.
Az-zaytūn also gave us the aceituna, Spanish for olive. The similarity is hard to miss. A less commonly used but more purist synonym of aceite is óleo. However, you’re better off sticking to aceite because óleo has come to be rather restricted in its meaning today. While aceite refers to all kinds of oils, óleo is more about oil paintings and holy oils. That’s why, the latter also refers to baptism in colloquial Latin American Spanish. Aceite, on the other hand, can also refer to drugs (LSD in particular) in Mexico.
Aceite also gives us a bunch of useful derivatives worth learning. One of them is aceitar, meaning to oil. Another is aceitoso which means oily. Both these words are common-sense derivations and should be easy to remember.
2. Alberca (Swimming Pool)
Alberca refers to any kind of water tank or reservoir in Spain. It could be a pond or a pool. Swimming pool is ideally piscina but alberca is preferred in and around Mexico, except in the Yucatán where piscina enjoys better currency. The word derives from birka, Arabic for pond. Al is the article in Arabic, akin to el and la in Spanish. Al-birka used to be a pool of running water the rich Arabs of Andalusia used to cool themselves off during the rather warm summer months.
So, you can see how this al-birka, meaning the pool, would have evolved into alberca of Castilian. This is the way it went down with almost all Spanish words the start with al-. Most al-words of Spanish are essentially Arabic by origin.
In Colombia, alberca also refers to a concrete water-reservoir used for washing clothes. These are typically three-foot wide and just as long, give or take. The reservoir is partially covered on the top with a platform which is where you do the laundry.
3. Almohada (Pillow)
The original Castilian term is cojín but today, almohada enjoys a more widespread usage. Cojín refers to a cushion in modern Spanish. Almohada originated as Arabic al-miḵadda which morphed into almuẖádda of Andalusian Arabic before finally settling down in its present form. Almohada can also refer to a pillowcase or cushion although cojín serves the latter better.
If you like almohada (as if you have a choice), you would also like a very handy idiomatic derivation of it. It goes as consultarlo con la almohada which literally translates into discuss it with the pillow. That doesn’t make much sense, does it? That’s because idiomatic expressions rarely do. Consulting with the pillow here is a metaphor for sleeping over something. You use this expression when you wish to defer making a decision on something that calls for further deliberation.
4. Alquiler (Rental)
Alquiler has several meanings all pertaining to renting. It can refer to the rental as well as the act of renting itself. The word has its origins in Arabic al-kirā’.
The act of renting, however, has nuances. These nuances are respected in Spanish as much as they are in English. For example, you wouldn’t rent an employee, you’d hire them. On the other hand, you wouldn’t hire an apartment, you’d rent it. When you rent an item, movable or immovable, the verb is alquilar. And just as you guessed, it derives from alquiler. However, if what you rent is a service, the verb of choice would be arrender. Then there’s also rentar which, despite sounding like rent, is closer to leasing than renting.
My friends in Spain confirm that alquilar is what they tend to prefer in most cases with arrender being reserved for more technical or legal contexts. Rentar is rarely used there. This seems to be more or less the case in Venezuela, Argentina, Colombia, and El Salvador as well. Mexicans, however, seem to go with rentar in almost all contexts.
5. Arroz (Rice)
Arroz derives from the Andalusian Arabic arráwz which itself is a corruption of Arabic ʾaruzz. The Arabic word itself goes back to Ancient Greek óruza which, many say, is the source of rice in English. Small world, isn’t it? In fact, if you look closely, you can still notice a hint of similarity between arroz and its English counterpart; it’s just a difference of vowels to a large extent.
Rice can be brown or white. The brown one is called arroz integral and the white one arroz blanco. If you cultivate rice or just love eating rice, you’re an arrocero. Another derivative is arrozal which refers to a paddy field or a field where rice is cultivated.
Speaking of arroz, there’s a very interesting idiom I would love for you to learn. It’s arroz y gallo muerto. Literally translating into rice and dead rooster, the expression basically refers to a sumptuous meal. A slap-up do, if you’re British. The analogy here is that rice with chicken was, at one time, considered meal fit for kings!
6. Azúcar (Sugar)
This one takes us all the way to India where Sanskrit used to be the lingua franca back in the day. Sanskrit and Latin have both been extinct for several centuries now and only survive in liturgical contexts. The word was śárkarā. This was adopted by Persian invaders as šakar which later entered Arabic and Andalusian Arabic as as-súkkar. From as-súkkar to azúcar was a pretty seamless journey.
Azúcar gives us several derivatives including azucarar (to add sugar), azucarero (sugar bowl), and azucarera (sugar factory). One interesting thing to note about azúcar is its ambiguous gender. As a standalone word, it’s masculine and takes the article el. And yet it takes feminine adjectives more often than not. Thus, brown sugar is azúcar morena and not azúcar moreno. But don’t let this mess with your head because even native speakers get their genders mixed up when it comes to this word.
7. Fulano (So-and-So)
This one is among my top favorites. That’s mainly because it doesn’t seem to have an exact English equivalent! Of course you have so-and-so or what’s-his-name but they just don’t cut it. They don’t sound as natural as fulano, do they? They’re rather makeshift whereas fulano is just meant for the job. The word comes from fulān of Arabic and refers to an unspecified person.
Fulano can also be used as a proper noun similar to John Doe in English. One way to do that is Don Fulano, another is Fulano de Tal. Another way we refer to unspecified people in English is Tom, Dick, and Harry. The Spanish equivalent of this would be Fulano, Mengano, y Zutano. As a pejorative, fulano can also mean nobody, as in es un fulano (he’s a nobody). You can, of course, also use the word for a female nobody; all you have to do is say fulana instead of fulano.
8. Hasta (Until)
Hasta comes from Arabic ḥattā with influences from Latin ad ista, meaning to this. Depending on the context, the word can express ideas like as far as, as many as, up to, or even down to. All of these can be seen as related to its central theme, that of until.
In Mexico, Colombia, and most of Central America, hasta can also represent a not…until construct. See the following example for illustration:
Hasta mañana viene (He isn’t coming until tomorrow).
Hasta hoy lo conocí (I didn’t know him until today).
Lo hizo hasta el martes (He didn’t do it until Tuesday).
This construct might sound strange to English ears but it all makes sense if you think about it. Take the first one, for example. If you translate it using the regular meaning of hasta, you end up with the following:
He is coming until tomorrow.
This doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, does it? But if it does if you interpret the same sentence in negative:
He isn’t coming until tomorrow.
I admit it takes some getting used to but the format is extremely commonplace in that part of the world. Hasta can also mean even in some cases although people also use incluso instead:
Hasta en Valencia hiela a veces (Even in Valencia it freezes at times).
The above sentence can be rendered using incluso without any change in meaning. There are many more uses, including idiomatic ones, of this word and including them all here would be overkill for the article. I would recommend looking up the word on a good dictionary and practicing it thoroughly to get all its nuances. Trust me, it’s a very good idea given its versatility.
9. Jaqueca (Migraine)
This one saw its origin in the Arabic word saqiqa. There are non-Semitic alternatives too, such as cefalea and the more obvious migraña. You could also go with a simple dolor de cabeza but that would be less specific for a migraine. There’s even a rather technical-sounding alternative, hemicránea. This one literally translates into half a skull and is an allusion to the defining feature of a migraine.
Since both migraña and jaqueca are synonymous and migraña is a no-brainer when it comes to learning, you might wonder why even bother with jaqueca. Well, you can make do with migraña alone if you will but the term is rather medical in nature and in day-to-day conversations you’re more likely to hear jaqueca. It’s like how people prefer heart attack to cardiac arrest in non-medical parlance. Oh and jaqueca can also refer to a hangover – of course, colloquially – in the Southern Cone.
10. Ojalá (Hopefully)
Ojalá has to be arguably the most well-known Arabic loanword in the entire Spanish vocabulary. This one It goes back to the Arabic expression wa-šā’ allāh (and may God will it) which corrupted to oxalá of Old Spanish before eventually settling down as ojalá. The keyword here is Allah or God. Whenever you express a deep desire or wish, you invoke God. Think of ojalá as a way of going oh Allah… before making that wish. Allah, of course, is Arabic for God.
The word always takes the subjunctive with or without que in the clause it introduces. Depending on the context, it can translate into if only, let’s hope, I hope, I wish, etc. The word can be used as a standalone interjection as well as a conjunction.
In Latin America, ojalá is also often used as a synonym of aunque (even though). Even in this case, the clause it introduces must be in the subjunctive mood. Let the following example explain this:
No lo haré, ojalá me maten (I won’t do it even if they killed me).
As you can see, the verb matar is conjugated in the subjunctive as maten instead of the regular matan. That’s because they haven’t actually killed you; it’s just a hypothetical scenario. Any such hypothetical or uncertain event is expressed with a subjunctive in Spanish.
11. Rehén (Hostage)
The Arabic word of interest here is rahīn which translates into guaranty, pledge, or security. Security, hostage – you can easily see the analogy here. The word is unisex which means it stays the same in either gender. So while el rehén is a male hostage, la rehén is female. The plural form is rehenes.
In case you’d prefer a less Semitic alternative, you could go with prisionero, preso, cautivo, or recluso. Do note, however, that none of these words exclusively mean hostage. They are broader terms for prisoners and can only be extrapolated to mean what rehén too. When you speak of hostage, you generally do so in the context of taking someone as one. In Spanish, the expression for that is tomar a alguien como rehén meaning to take someone hostage.
12. Rincón (Corner)
In Standard Arabic, rukn means corner or nook. This is what entered Andalusia as rukán and further corrupted to rincón of Spanish. Although rincón means corner, there’s a slight but certain nuance to it. It’s not just any corner. The term refers to only the inner corner of a structure, one where the sides make an acute angle. The outer corner (the one with an obtuse angle), on the other hand, is esquina.
Rincón also carries a number of other meanings somewhat related to corner. One of them, especially in Latin America, is a patch of ground. Other than that, rincón can refer to a retreat or a haven as well. Like I said, all these interpretations revolve around the central theme – that of a corner.
And no, there’s no such word as rinca in Spanish. Although it’s true that -ón is a common Spanish augmentative and can be seen in words like panzón (a pot-bellied man) and tazón (a really big cup or a mug), that’s not the case with rincón. So the latter isn’t a bigger rinco.
13. Tarea (Task)
Tarea sounds like tirar which is Spanish for throw which sounds like ṭáraḥa which is Classical Arabic for tirar. Even if you are thoroughly confused at this stage, you must have come to appreciate by now that the world is indeed round, precisely the point I was trying to make. You see, tarea is a corruption of ṭarīḥa, the Arabic word for endeavor. This Arabic term itself is a derivative of the Classical Arabic word I mentioned earlier, ṭáraḥa. Endeavor can easily be seen as related to task but endeavor and throw? Maybe if you think of throwing something as the task at hand, I don’t know.
The non-Arabic alternative you could go with is deberes which is almost always used in the plural. Tarea, however, seems to be a better fit going by of usage preference. Just like deberes, tarea could also refer to household chores. The main difference between deberes and tarea is that tarea can be singular or plural – as tareas – as needed but deberes is mostly just plural.
14. Taza (Cup)
Taza is a derivation from Arabic ṭassah which itself is a loan from Persian. The word is more versatile than its English counterpart because it can refer to a traditional cup as well as a mug. That being said, it’s also more restrictive than its English counterpart in a sense. While cup can refer to the vessel you sip your tea from as well as the thing you win at a sports tournament (think Stanley Cup), the two things are translated differently in Spanish. Taza only refers to what you use for your tea (or any other beverage for that matter). The cup in your World Cup (or any other that’s not meant for drinking) is copa.
Coming back to the versatility of taza, it can also refer to a toilet bowl in some places. And if you’re in the Southern Cone, you can hear it used for the washbowl too! Still fancy a tasty taza of hot chocolate? See what I did there? It’s called mnemonic. Memory hook, if you will. I am certain you will never be able to forget taza now and the tasty cup of chocolate will ensure that.
That brings us to the end of the line. Fourteen words Spanish borrowed from Arabic that are as integral to your Spanish today as they were a few centuries ago! Of course there are many, many more. But you should be in a better position to explore the others now after learning the most essential ones.