Arab (etymology)

Arab (etymology)

The proper name Arab or "Arabian" (and cognates in other languages) has been used to translate several different but similar sounding words in ancient and classical texts which do not necessarily have the same meaning or origin. The etymology of the term is of course closely linked to that of the place name "Arabia". Grunebaum, in his book "Classical Islam" said that an approximate translation is "passerby" or "nomad". [Grunebaum, p. 16] Will Durant, in "The Age of Faith", said that Arab meant "arid". ["Age of Faith", p. 155]

emitic etymology

The root of the word has many meanings in Semitic languages including "west/sunset," "desert," "mingle," "merchant," "raven" and are "comprehensible" with all of these having varying degrees of relevance to the emergence of the name. It is also possible that some forms were metathetical from transl|sem|ʿ-B-R "moving around" (Arabic ArabDIN|ʿ-B-R "traverse"), and hence, it is alleged, "nomadic."

The plurality of meanings results partly from the assimilation of the proto-Semitic "ghayin" with transl|sem|"ʿayin" in some languages. In Hebrew the word "transl|sem|ʿarav" thus has the same triconsonantal root as the root meaning "west" ("transl|sem|maʿarav") "setting sun" or "evening" ("transl|sem|maʿariv", "transl|sem|ʿerev"). The direct Arabic cognate of this is "ArabDIN|ġarb" ("west", etc.) rather than "ArabDIN|ʿarab"; however, in Ugaritic, a language which normally preserves proto-Semitic "ghayin", this root is found with Unicode|"ʿayin" adding to the confusion. [If we assume that the word for "evening" was originally pronounced with Unicode|"ʿayin", or that the distinction between Unicode|"ʿayin" and "ghayin" was not phonemic, it could be connected with the "mixture" meaning, as evening is when day mixes with night.]

In Arabic

In the Qur'an, the word "ArabDIN|ʿarab" does not appear, only the nisba adjective, "ArabDIN|ʿarabiyyun": The Qur'an is referring to itself as "ArabDIN|ʿarabiyyun" "Arabic" and "ArabDIN|mubinun" "clear". The two qualities are connected, for example in ayat 43.2-3, "By the "clear" Book: We have made it an "Arabic" recitation in order that you may understand", and the Qur'an came to be regarded as the prime example of "ArabDIN|al-ʿarabiyyatu", the language of the Arabs. The term "ArabDIN|ʾiʿrāb" is from the same root, referring to a particularly clear and correct mode of speech. Bedouin elders still use this term with the same meaning; those whose speech they comprehend (ie Arabic-speakers) they call "Arab", and those whose speech is of unknown meaning to them, they call "Ajam" (ajam or ajami). In the Persian Gulf region, the term "Ajam" is often used to refer to the Persians. [An analogy would be the distinction in Slavic languages between "Slav" (speaking people, from "slovo", word) and "Niemiec" (dumb people, used for the Germans).]

The plural noun "ArabDIN|ʾaʿrāb" refers to the Bedouin tribes of the desert who resisted Muhammad, for example in ayat 9.97,:"ArabDIN|al-´a`rābu ´ašaddu kufran wa-nifāqan" "the Bedouin are the worst in disbelief and hypocrisy". Based on this, in early Islamic terminology, "ArabDIN|ʿarab" referred to sedentary Arabs, living in cities such as Mecca and Medina, and "ArabDIN|ʾaʿrāb" referred to the Arab Bedouins, carrying a negative connotation due to the Qur'anic verdict just cited. Following the Islamic conquest of the 8th century, however, the language of the nomadic Arabs came to be regarded as preserving the highest purity by the grammarians following Abi Ishaq, and the term ArabDIN|kalam al-ʿArab "language of the Arabs" came to denote the uncontaminated language of the Bedouins.

:"Cf. the modern toponyms Algarve and Arava"

In Assyrian

Although the term "mâtu arbâi" describing Gindibu in Assyrians texts is conventionally translated "of Arab land", nothing is known with certainty about the exact location or extent of the land being referred to, nor what literal meaning the name had. In fact several different ethnonyms are found in Assyrian texts that are conventionally translated "Arab": "Arabi", "Arubu", "Aribi" and "Urbi". The presence of Proto-Arabic names amongst those qualified by the terms arguably justifies the translation "Arab" although it is not certain if they all in fact represent the same group. They may plausibly be borrowings from Aramaic or Canaanite of words derived from either the proto-Semitic root "ArabDIN|ʿgh-r-b" or "ArabDIN|ʿ-r-b".

It is in the case of the Assyrian forms that a possible derivation from "ArabDIN|ʿgh-r-b" ("west") is most plausible, referring to people or land lying west of Assyria in a similar vein to the later Greek use of the term Saracen meaning in Arabic "Easterners", "ArabDIN|šarqiyyūn" for people living in the east.

In Hebrew

In Hebrew the words "`arav" and "`aravah" literally mean "desert" or "steppe". In the Hebrew Bible the latter feminine form is used exclusively for the Arabah, a region associated with the Nabateans, who spoke Arabic. The former masculine form is used in Isaiah 21:13 and Ezekiel 27:21 for the region of the settlement of Kedar in the Syrian Desert. 2 Chronicles 9:14 contrasts “kings of "`arav" " with “governors of the country” when listing those who brought tribute to King Solomon. The word is typically translated Arabia and is the name for Arabia in Modern Hebrew. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible uses instead the literal translation “desert plain” for the verse in Isaiah. The adjectival noun "`aravi" formed from "`arav" is used in Isaiah 13:20 and Jeremiah 3:2 for a desert dweller. It is typically translated Arabian or Arab and is the modern Hebrew word for Arab. The New Revised Standard Version uses the translation "nomad" for the verse in Jeremiah.

In the Bible, the word "`arav" is closely associated with the word "`erev" meaning a "mix of people" which has identical spelling in unvowelled text. Jeremiah 25:24 parallels "kings of "`arav" " with "kings of the "`erev" that dwell in the wilderness". The account in 1 Kings 10:15 matching 2 Chronicles 9:14 is traditionally vowellized to read "kings of the "`erev" ". The people in question are understood to be the early Nabateans who do indeed appear to have been a mix of different tribes. The medieval writer Ibn an-Nadim, in "Kitab al-Fihrist", derived the word "Arab" from a Syriac pun by Abraham on the same root: in his account, Abraham addresses Ishmael and tells him "u`rub", from Syriac "`rob", "mingle".

The early Nabateans are also referred to as "`arvim" in Nehemiah 4:7 and the singular "`arvi" is applied to Geshem a leader who opposed Nehemiah. This term is identical to "`aravi" in unvowelled text but traditionally vowelized differently. It is usually translated "Arabian" or "Arab" and was used in early 20th century Hebrew to mean Arab. However it is unclear if the term related more to "`arav" or to "`erev". On the one hand its vowelization resembles that of the term "`arvati" (Arbathite) which is understood as an adjective formed from "`aravah"; thus it is plausibly a similarly formed adjective from "`arav" and thus a variant of "`aravi". On the other hand it is used in 2 Chronicles 21:16 for a seemingly different people located in Africa plausibly the same Africans referred to as an "`erev" (mix of people) in Ezekiel 30:5. Any of the other meanings of the root are also possible as the origin of the name.

The words "`aravim" (plural of "`aravi") and "`arvim" appear the same in unvowelled texts as the word "`orvim" meaning ravens. The occurrences of the word in 1 Kings 17:4-6 are traditionally vowellized to read "`orvim". In the Talmud ("Chullin" 5a) a debate is recorded as to whether the passage refers to birds or to a people so named, noting a Midianite chieftain named Oreb ("`orev": raven) and the place of his death, the Rock of Oreb. Jerome understood the term as the name of a people of a town which he described as being in the confines of the Arabians. (Genesis Rabba mentions a town named Orbo near Beth Shean.) One meaning of the root `-r-b in Hebrew is "exchange/trade" ("la'arov": "to exchange", "ma`arav": "merchandise") whence "`orvim" can also be understood to mean "exchangers" or "merchants", a usage attested in the construct form in Ezekiel 27:27 which speaks of "`orvei ma`aravekh": "exchangers of thy merchandise". The Ferrar Fenton Bible translates the term as "Arabians" in 1 Kings 17:4-6.

2 Chronicles 26:17 mentions a people called "`Arviyim" who lived in Gur-baal. There name differs from those mentioned above in the Bible in that it contains an extra letter yod but is also translated "Arabian". 2 Chronicles 17:11 mentions a people called "Arvi'im" who brought Jehoshaphat tribute of rams and he-goats. Their name is also generally translated as "Arabians" although it differs noticeably in spelling from the above mentioned names as it contains the letter aleph at the end of the stem. Nothing else is known about these groups.



*Edward Lipinski, "Semitic Languages: Outlines of a Comparative Grammar", 2nd ed., Orientalia Lovanensia Analecta: Leuven 2001. ISBN 90-429-0815-7
*The Catholic Encyclopedia, Robert Appleton Company, 1907, Online Edition, K. Night 2003: article Arabia
*The Jewish Encyclopedia, Funk and Wagnalls, 1901-1906, Online Edition,, 2002: article Arabia
*The New Revised Standard Version, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1989, 1995.
*Ferrar Fenton, "The Holy Bible in Modern English", Destiny Publishers, Merrimac, Massachusetts, U.S.A., 1906, 1966
* Grunebaum, G. E. von (1970). "Classical Islam: A History 600 A.D. - 1258 A.D.". Aldine Publishing Company. ISBN 202-15016-X

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