For those tired of the endless polarised debate on immigration, there is a breed of migrants that no political or cultural frontier can hold back.
Judging by how some people speak of downtrodden asylum seekers and hardworking economic migrants, you'd be excused for thinking that Britain and other parts of Europe were under foreign occupation. While I sympathise with the insecurity and fear triggered by the uncertainties of the modern world, the situation is getting surreal.
However, today I'm too weary to deconstruct the ridiculous ban on the headscarf that started in France (and before it Turkey) and spread like an unsightly rash to other parts of Europe. Here in Belgium, the far-right Vlaams Belang has been on a political crusade to have the hijab banned from local government offices.
Instead, I'll explore a domain where foreign influences are welcome and thrive: language. English, which has enriched itself by borrowing perhaps half its vocabulary from other tongues, is a prime example of this. Since I urge people such as Geert Wilders, a populist Dutch far-right politician who has produced a film calling for the banning of the Quran, to chill out over migration and not to get his knickers in a twist, perhaps he'll appreciate the fact that “knickers” actually comes from the Dutch knie-broek (knee trousers).
Other Dutch words in wide circulation include dam, dike, beaker, brawl, ahoy, skipper, buoy, trigger, dope, drill, frolic, gin, golf, grab, spook, stove, dapper, tulip, as well as the Americanisms cookie and geek.
Some words have the habit of leaving home, settling down elsewhere, and eventually being repatriated as an exotic foreign import. One interesting example is the word that embodies the very essence of French chic: mannequin.
But this word, which evokes images of French ateliers and haute couture, actually started life as a humble little man (“manneken” is the diminutive form for man in Dutch) from the Low Countries who apparently stole across the border into France. Today, he has returned in glamorous new clothes and most locals aren't even aware of his origins – or even gender.
In English, the largest waves of foreign migrant words came with invasion – Norse, Norman French, etc – but trade, science, literature, religion, empire and immigration have all attracted tribes of foreign vocabulary to settle these shores, some becoming so well assimilated that they strut around like natives.
Since Norse, Germanic and French words in English are too many to recount, I'll explore the more exotic arrivals that have insinuated their way into the English lexicon. Let's start with something divinely heavenly. We may believe that paradise is a place called Eden but, etymologically, it is a Persian walled garden.
Britain's “cushy” (from Urdu) colonial experience in India left a lasting impact on the English language. Apparently mundane words abound which originally came from the subcontinent. These include bungalow, caravan, shampoo, cot, jungle, and even loot and thug.
The title of this article contains the word almanac which is derived from the Arabic for “climate”. In addition to terms referring to Islam, Arabic words that have migrated into common English usage fall into a number of major groups: science, mathematics, medicine, astronomy, seafaring, trade, food and drink.
They include magazine (as in a storehouse of, in this case, knowledge), algebra (and logarithms named after the Persian founder of algebra, al-Khawarizmi), zero, cipher, chemistry, alcohol, manoeuvre, massage, hazard, sugar, soda, sofa, safari, cotton, racket, zenith, nadir, mattress, jar, ghoul, calibre, amalgam, aubergine, lemon and coffee.
Likewise, a lot of English and other European words have entered into Arabic, particularly for modern sciences and technologies. Egyptian slang contains a lot of English words, re-tailored to suit the Egyptian tongue. These include the “street” equivalent of “guv” or “squire”, “cabten” or “brince” (captain or prince); fashion items like jenz (jeans), blovar (pullover) and trenin (from training, ie tracksuit); food and drink like cacola (Coca Cola), sefin (Seven Up), betsa (pizza) and estek (steak).
ne of Egypt's most popular national dishes is koshari, a delicious mix of rice, lentils and various pastas, sprinkled with fried onions and topped with a generous serving of red-hot chilli sauce and vinaigrette. The dish's name had long stumped me and I had developed an elaborate theory that its name might derive from the Hebrew kasher (or kosher) because it somehow ticked all the boxes of what may be eaten.
But the probable explanation lies much further afield. Once, over a plate of koshari at a specialised spit-and-saw-dust eatery in Cairo, a British-Indian friend suggested that the name came from the Indian dish kitchari.
But foreign influence is not confined to modern Arabic. Classical Arabic – which is regarded as the purest form of the language – is replete with loan words from Greek, Latin, Persian, as well as other Semitic tongues. The common Arabic word for language, “lougha”, derives from the Greek logos, which means word, speech, discourse and reason, and from which we derive the modern “logo” and “logic”.
Other loan words include “jens” which has the same meaning as the Latin “genus”, i.e. kind, stock, or race, but has also evolved to mean gender or sex in the 19th century. The Arabic word genie, made popular by the Arabian Nights, probably comes from the Latin word “genius” which refers to a guardian deity or spirit.
Despite the ancient tradition of borrowing, Arabs, like the French, have set up modern institutes to preserve the “purity” of their tongue. Scholars have laboured to find Arabic equivalents – which few actually use – for modern inventions: telephone (el-hatif), computer (el-hasib el-aly), radio (el-mezya'a), etc.
Place names are an intriguing world in their own right. Africa, the term the Romans used to refer to the north of the continent, derives from “Afri” (from the Phoenician “affar” meaning dust) and the Latin suffix “ca” or “land”. Andalusia may have witnessed the zenith of its prestige during Muslim rule, but it owes its name to a much-maligned Nordic tribe. It was the land of the Vandals, and I'm not talking about British hooligans on the Spanish Costas!
“Egypt” probably stems from a Greek bastardisation of the Hat-ka-Ptah temple in the heart of ancient Memphis. Ancient Egyptians called their own land Kemet (or the fertile black lands). This is in contrast to the deshret (red lands) of the surrounding desert (notice the etymological link?). Contemporary Egyptians call their land Masr which derives from a Semitic reference to the ancient dynastic separation of northern and southern Egypt.
The word “Gypsy” also derives from “Egypt” and stems from the mistaken belief that these roaming peoples originated in Egypt, not India, as anthropologists currently believe. The Spanish, being much closer to Egypt, believe that the Roma originated in Flanders and call them “Flamenco”.
For a while, the French believed that the Roma came from Bohemia, ie the Czech Republic. In the 19th century, French artists and poets took to calling themselves bohemian. But this is actually not a compliment to the high cultural achievements of the Czech people; it stems from the romantic idea that artists are unconventional, poor, marginalised, cultural nomads.
The opposite, philistine, or a petit-bourgeois materialist who is ignorant of art and worship kitsch, dismisses a highly accomplished ancient people as uncultured. This may originate in the Biblical belief that the Philistines were the “enemies of God”.
Language is a comfortable melting pot where local and foreign words live side by side in relative harmony. Perhaps its time our societies followed this example and turned over a new leaf.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 31 January 2008.