Conjecture About Words

Lately I’ve been listening to quite a few sets of lectures on CD. The last one I finished was “Religion, Violence & the Modern World (Shaykh Hamza Yusuf) UK Tour 2004.” In this set of lectures, Shaykh Hamza Yusuf talks a great deal about history, education, and language as they relate to dialogue between Muslims and non-Muslims. It’s a great series and I highly recommend it. Available here: http://www.onlineislamicstore.com/a4316.html.

Sometimes, like many other great orators, Shaykh Hamza goes off on tangents. He particularly seems to enjoy talking about words. In this, he is a kindred spirit to me. He engages in some conjecture about the origin of words.

“Conjecture” itself is a word worth talking about. Speakers often use it derisively or dismissively. “He has wonderful ideas, but they are mere conjecture.” The Quran itself at one point insults conjecture, saying, “Surely those who believe not in the Hereafter name the angels with female names. And they have no knowledge of it. They follow but conjecture, and surely conjecture avails naught against Truth.” (53:27-28, trans. Muhammad Ali). Allah criticizes people who base their religion on ideas they have made up themselves. But conjecture isn’t always bad. Conjecture allows one to put forth ideas so that they can later be refined and also so they can be studied with research. Conjecture is a big part of the Scientific Method – it’s the part that allows people to come up with hypotheses. In fact, quite often people who say they have “theories” about something are really engaging in conjecture. A theory, by definition, has the weight of research and/or experimentation behind it. Conjecture can just be an idea that came to you in your sleep.

I will share with you some conjecture about four words in the English language – bug, icky, macabre, and shirk. The first two hypotheses come from Shaykh Hamza while the third and fourth are my own.

Shaykh Hamza opines that “bug” comes from an Arabic word, “buq,” meaning “pest.” Normally, the q sound in Arabic is like a k from the back of the throat. But in Yemen, people pronounce the q or qaf like an English hard g. So there is an Arabic word that sounds like “bug” and means “pest.” I’m convinced, are you? Interestingly, the Merriam-Webster dictionary says for the etymology (origin) of bug, “origin unknown.”

He also suggests, this time a bit more facetiously, that “icky” comes from the Arabic “iqi.” Now this is a little nutty, but I am not making this up, “iqi” has two meanings in Arabic, one is “pure gold,” and the other is  “meconium (the first stool that a newborn baby makes).” He explains that in Arabic, wealth is associated with feces. To prove his point, he says that the word for “miser” (as in a person who hoards wealth) comes from the word for “constipated.” Use your imagination. Webster says the etymology of icky is “perhaps baby talk alteration of sticky,” which I read as, “We don’t have a clue.”

Macabre is not exactly a common English word, but it is slightly elegant. Can’t you see the Frenchness of it? Macabre refers to something related to death or something horrific. The “Saw” film franchise comes to mind. Webster says the word comes from “danse de Macabre,” a medieval French dance of death. But I feel they have stopped short here. Where did the name for the dance come from? Wikipedia is helpful and explains that it is a dance that originated in Europe around the time of the Black Death. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Danse_macabre. The same article suggests, as I have long believed, that macabre comes from the Arabic “al maqabira,” as in the second ayah of Surah Takathur “hatta zurtumu almaqabira,” (“Until you visit the graves.”).

Finally, the word “shirk” is sort of a case of the right hand not talking to the left. When I say shirk to most Muslims, they know what I’m talking about. Shirk is idol-worship, or more technically, associating partners with Allah. But there is also an English word “shirk,” meaning, “to evade the performance of an obligation” http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/shirk (Incidentally, the Webster site is a gold mine for students, teachers and word-lovers of all stripes.) Speakers of English say “shirk” and speakers of Arabic say “shirk,” but no one seems to see the connection. You might have heard someone speaking of “shirking his duties.” There is a common thread between the English and Arabic words “shirk” beyond their common phonetics. When a person commits shirk, he or she evades obligations to Allah. Webster again gives the vapid etymology, “origin unknown.”

Shaykh Hamza and I agree on the reason for these seemingly simple unsolved mysteries. English etymologists and lexicographers (experts on word origins and dictionary-writers) typically don’t study Arabic. Indeed, in most American universities, if a student wants to understand the origins of English, the faculty will advise him or her to study Latin, Greek, German, and Old English. Arabic is not on that list. Speaking of lists, there is a long list of Arabic words that come from English, excluding the ones I have just mentioned. The list includes: alcohol, candy, check, cotton, giraffe, hazard, kismet, and many more (http://www.zompist.com/arabic.html). Yet Europeans studied Arabic for centuries as the best thinkers in a diverse array of subjects wrote in Arabic. Also, as my mother is fond of saying, the Mediterranean is just a pond. Links between England, Spain, France, Arabia, Turkey, and Egypt have been strong for a long, long time.

To make a long story short, Mr. Webster, I say to you, Assalam Alaikum.

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  1. #1 by Birgit Hatman on September 12, 2011 - 7:27 am

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