Category Archives: etymology

Arabic Conjugation Reveals Professor’s Secret Identity

Some of the more prominent Crushers. (Or Breadbreakers).

Frustrated perhaps by a lack of grammatical precision in his ‘supposedly’ advanced Arabic students, my professor in this semester’s Language of the Qur’an course has taken us back a step this week into our primary verb conjugation chart, making us (re)memorize all the verb forms and spending each day of our classwork chanting those forms together to reinforce them in our weak and forgetful minds.

While this might seem like the ultimate in dry and unproductive exercises, it does yield some added ability to communicate in a register above common ‘street’ Arabic.

Additionally, as we ran through the Measure III conjugation of the verb h-SH-M, he provided us with an interesting tidbit of historical AND personal revelation.  (I’m using lowercase ‘h’ here to separate between the two Arabic H’s, fyi, this one being the softer).

Opening my trusty Hans Wehr dictionary, the root h-SH-M means, in Measure I,  ‘to destroy’ ‘to smash’ ‘to crush’ or ‘to shatter.’  Hans Wehr doesn’t offer a verb for Measure III, but the Musdar, or verbal noun, that comes from it yields our modern day Hashemite (as in the tribe, which now rules in both Jordan and Morocco and traces its ancestry back to the Prophet Muhammad).  Lest we imagine that Hashemite refers to some ability to smash or destroy in a physical or martial way we must point out that Measure III, from which this Musdar comes, is participatory, changing the base meaning the verb to render something more like: ‘to smash with someone’ or, in this specific case, ‘to break bread with someone.’  Thus, historically, the Hashemites get their name from being the hosts of the sacred area in Mecca, those with whom pilgrims would break bread.

Taking this one step further, my professor’s first name is Hisham.  This also comes from Measure III of h-SH-M, but from a variant of the Musdar that differentiates between ‘completed’ and ‘in-process’ or ‘trying-to-complete’ action.  So, while (to my knowledge) Professor Hisham isn’t a member of either the Moroccan or Jordanian royal families, fittingly enough for us students, we could at least consider him our definite and complete ‘breaker’ ‘smasher’ ‘shatterer’ or ‘crusher’.  He isn’t just trying to break bread here.  He’s wholly successful.

I will remember that next time we get a grammar test.

 

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More Odd Business Names

To continue the theme, begun before Thanksgiving, of oddly named business establishments in the Middle East . . . here are three (somewhat scatalogical) additions.  The funniness, the quirkiness here, the NQR, must be mostly attributed to our Western perspective in reading and understanding.  Certainly these names haven’t been invented just to be funny.  They pass, unnoticed, through the daily lives of many thousands of people.  So we must conclude that it is us, not them, with a skewed perspective.

Eye-catching Acronym

The first, Mohammad Ibrahim Law Firm, bills itself (on its website) as a ‘highly adequate service.’  As if this weren’t oxymoronic enough, it also announces its presence to greater Muscat, Oman, via a largish billboard overlooking the main Ministry District overchange.  This billboard attracts a fair amount of attention, at least from Westerners, because it uses the firm’s initials as a handy moniker:  M.I.L.F.

Just in case you're wondering, 'Coq' means 'chicken' in French.

The second, on a street corner in Rabat, Morocco, is part of a successful chain, like KFC for Francophiles.  Our hosts in Rabat assured us that the chicken is very good.  The billboard certainly doesn’t appear to be ashamed of itself.  We never ate at any of these locations, unable to overcome our own, more Anglicized, interpretation of the name.

Candy, anyone?

And, finally, what must certainly be the most bizarre and unattractive of all the odd names we encountered throughout our travels . . . this sweet shop in Abu Dhabi.  We snapped the photo while driving along the street, having seen the sign, then grabbing frantically for the camera, before (just barely) managing to get the photo as traffic whisked us away.  What, on earth, were these folks thinking, the owners (or their English translators/consultants) when they put together their brand and their billboard?


Heavenly Etymology

The Garden of Allah by Maxfield Parrish.

I’m going to nerd-out here for a moment in order to show my enthusiasm for what must be a totally obscure and academic discipline:  etymology.

I’m taking a course right now with Professor Michael Cook, who is a truly entertaining teacher as well as being one of the world’s most iconoclastic scholars of Islam.  During the course, reading through an Arabic passage on the life of the revered Muslim scholar Bukhari, we came across a strange nisba, or surname, in Bukhari’s lineage.  The name, roughly transliterated into English, was Birdizbah.

This is, doubtlessly, a non-Arabic name.

We asked Professor Cook about it in class and he launched into a really groovy etymological explanation.

It seems he, too, had the same question but was not, like me, completely dumbfounded when it came to deciphering the word.  He guessed that it likely derived from a very obscure Iranian language (still spoken in one little valley in Tajikistan) called Sogdian.

He found an online Sogdian discussion forum (wonder of wonders!) and posed the question of the origins of this name to the assembled electronic Sogdians and Sogdian enthusiasts.  It seems, within a short period of time, that a Japanese scholar identified the ‘–bah’ ending of Bardizbah as roughly equivalent with the Indian term ‘walla,’ which could mean lord or possessor or owner of something.

Then in the same forum an English professor, switching the Arabized ‘B’ to a phonetically equivalent Persian ‘P’ arrived at Pardiz for the first half of the name.

This gave Professor Cook “Pardiz-walla’ or “Owner of Pardiz” for the rough meaning.

It was only a small step further to produce our English-language version:  Paradise.

Lord of Paradise.

When you think about it, it’s quiet beautiful as a name, really.  And the only quip I can make as far as NQR is the fact that such a linguistic excavation was really incredibly interesting to me.  I guess I’m in the right place, immersed in academia!