An Etymological Dictionary of Arabic Language and Culture (EtymArab)

This is a project for establishing an etymologico-conceptual dictionary of the Arabic language, covering roots and terms of particular significance for the mental and cultural history of the Arabs.

About the project

It is the aim of this project to provide a tool that highlights Arab cultural history through the history of the vocabulary of the Arabic language. The project can build on earlier studies in a large variety of different disciplines. It can also profit from specialists’ expertise. At the same time it is eager to make it accessible for related disciplines. It concentrates on fuṣḥā and on roots and terms of particular significance for the Arabs’ mental and cultural history, such as modes of living, cultural techniques, religion, philosophy, society, politics, etc. from the earliest to our times. But in the beginning it is focusing on vocabulary in present-day use.

The case of the project

Although one of the major languages of the world, Arabic has still not yet its etymological dictionary. It is the aim of the EtymArab project to provide such a tool. However, unlike ‘traditional’ etymological dictionaries, which tend to focus on ‘purely’ linguistic findings, EtymArab is interested not only in the linguistic data, but also in their historical background: it takes the history of Arabic vocabulary as a basis for highlighting Arab cultural history and the history of key concepts.

In this respect, EtymArab is not only a project of Arabic and, of course, Semitic and Afroasian linguistics. It rather combines etymology (in its classical form) with the various disciplines of Arab cultural history (political, social, economic, religious history of the Middle East, history of concepts/ideas, all kinds of culture studies, incl. the history of sciences, esp. botanics, pharmacology, chemistry, astronomy; archaeological and genetic findings may also become relevant).

Material to build on

Neither does EtymArab start from point zero in the fields of etymology and cultural history, nor is its basic operation, the bringing together of both, a totally new approach. There exist already a number of etymological dictionaries of other Semitic or Afroasian languages which, in most cases, include Arabic cognates, as well as numerous studies on the etymology of single words or certain expressions, many of which deal also with the historical background of borrowings, shifts in meaning, etc. But… – neither have the data, so meticulously compiled in the non-Arabic dictionaries, been extracted, filtered and reassembled, until now, in a way that would meet the needs and requirements of an average Arabic-speaking user, nor are relevant cultural explanations given in these voluminous compilations; nor have earlier studies on the etymology of Arabic been carried out in a systematic manner – they deal with certain terms, concepts, ideas, semantic fields, but only casually and rather impressionistically, some of them highlighting the historical background, others not; above all, they are scattered here and there, many to be found only in specialized libraries.

It will be one of EtymArab’s major tasks, therefore, on the one hand, to collect and process existing material. On the other hand, however, this process will make a large number of research lacunas apparent.


The length of the time period covered and the diversity of spheres of life touched by EtymArab make it a large-scale project which will involve (a) quite a number of scholars (b) from a large variety of research fields (c) on a long-term basis (d) in an international joint-venture.

In addition to the hitherto unprecedented interdisciplinary approach that characterizes the EtymArab project, a further innovative feature is the publication channel through which EtymArab will be accessible: a web-based platform / internet-portal which guarantees open access to all information for everybody worldwide. (A platform that is currently being tested is that of the Bibliotheca Polyglotta > Arabic Texts > choose Etymological Dictionary of Arabic on top of the menu to the left). The design of the entries will have to bear this ‘openness’ and publicity in mind and, accordingly, provide abbreviated/short ‘popular’ versions that can be selected alongside the longer academic ones.

An exemplary entry may consist of an Arabic word, its etymology in concise form (tracing it back to earlier forms and giving cognates in other languages, indicating changes of meaning etc.), then explaining the etymological findings with reference to their background, e.g., the transfer of a Greek term via Aramaic in the course of the great translation movements, or the adoption of a cultural technique from the Persians, or the coining of a new term from an Arabic root under the conditions of a changed environment, or the modification of meaning of existing words in order to express new concepts, etc.

For some sample entries (work in progress!), see, e.g.,

  • ǧamal ‘camel’
  • zanǧabīl ‘ginger’
  • sukkar ‘sugar’
  • funduq ‘hotel’
  • muqarnaṣ ‘a typical element in Islamic architecture’
  • qahwaẗ ‘coffee’
  • kāfūr ‘camphor’
  • murr ‘myrrh; bitter’
  • MRS (example of a polyvalent root)
  • marṭabān ‘a type of jar’, perhaps the etymon of our ‘marchpane’.
  • For all data, references will be given and the context of the original be provided as a quote from the sources consulted. Besides the full academic entry a ‘light’ version may be provided if necessary/advisable. The light ‘popular’ version is meant to supply an interested ‘lay’ public with research-based, but ‘digestable’ expertise on the historical and cultural background of, among others, terminological key concepts that have become known, and may even be commonplace, in the West (jihād, sharīʿa, fidāʾī, etc.) but are often misunderstood and interpreted out of context.


An Exploratory Workshop, supported by the European Science Foundation and gathering some 25 specialists from all over Europe and the Arab world, was held in June 2013. See Events.

In December 2015, a jīl jadīd workshop on Arabic etymology was held at, and in cooperation with, the Dept. of Near Eastern & East Asian Languages and Civilizations, University of Erlangen-Nürnberg, Germany.

Published May 7, 2010 1:49 PM - Last modified Sep. 18, 2020 7:44 AM