The Influence of Arabic upon the English Language - Creative Word

At first glance, the Arabic and English languages seem as far apart in composition as the regions themselves are on a map. However, the influence of the Arabic language on certain English words should not be overlooked as it gives a valuable insight into our shared history. Many words were borrowed from the Arab world at a time when its influence was paramount and its realm was far-spread.

During the 8th century, many parts of the Iberian Peninsula (what is known today as Spain and Portugal) were occupied by Arab people, known as Moors. During their time here their culture, language and knowledge permeated the area and became part of the area’s character.

Over the next few centuries, as Christian forces took control of the region, the two cultures and languages began to merge together and influence each other.

The following words, now commonly used throughout European countries and English-speaking areas, originated from the Arabic language.


1. Algebra

Algebra is one of the oldest forms of mathematics and has been used throughout history with origins traceable to the ancient Babylonians.
Egyptian, Greek and Chinese histories all contain evidence of algebraic use and knowledge, however, the term was first coined by the Arab mathematician, Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwarizmi in his book on mathematics, Kitab al-jabr w’al-Muqabala, which translates as ‘Rule of Reintegration and Reduction’.

Most sources agree that the word ‘Algebra’ first began to be used in the English language around the 15th century. Historians think it probably came from Arab medical workers in Spain and was used to describe the setting of broken bones.


2. Coffee

There are few of us who can survive a day without coffee, or at least saying the word a few times throughout the course of a day!

According to the National Coffee Association, the use of coffee as a drink can be traced to Ethiopia where a goat herder called Kaldi, noticed that when his goats ate the berries from a certain tree they could not settle down at night.

Kaldi reported his findings to the local abbot who made a brew with the berries and confirmed this drink kept him awake through evening prayer.
Soon other monks began brewing the berries and it wasn’t long before knowledge of this energising drink spread further afield.

By the 15th century coffee was being grown in the Yemini region of the Arab Peninsula, and then within one hundred years it was widespread across Persia, Syria, and other Arab nations. In Turkey it was known as ‘kahveh’.

Traders bought coffee to mainland Europe and England soon after, and by the mid-17th century there were more than 300 coffee houses in London alone, where patrons such as brokers, artists, merchants and intellectuals would sit sharing opinions and observations while drinking the dark, energizing brew.

In Italian it was called ‘caffe’ but we now know it as ‘coffee’.


3. Alcohol

The English word alcohol originally derives from the Arabic word ‘kohl’ meaning fine powder.

How it came to mean a type of drink is unclear but Paracelsus used the word to describe not only a powder but also a volatile liquid. By the mid-1600s the word was used in England to describe “any sublimated substance, the pure spirit of anything,” including liquids.

By the 1750s the word ‘alcohol’ was used to describe the “intoxicating ingredient in strong liquor” and by the 1850s began being commonly used in chemistry to classify chemicals which were the intoxicating element in fermenting liquors.

4. Numbers

While numbers aren’t exactly words (unless spelt out) they are used within virtually every language, and by every race throughout history, and the modern world.

Although the symbols used to represent the numbers look different, it is believed that they are mostly based upon a decimal Hindu–Arabic numeral system, using a zero, which was developed in India around the 6th or 7th century.

Traders and travellers probably bought the numbering system to Persia, where they were later adopted into the Arabic language and perpetuated by individuals such as, the Arab mathematicians Al-Kindi and Al-Khwarizmi through their writings.

Pope Sylvester II, originally known as Gerbert of Aurillac, who was Pope from 999 to his death in 1003, is recognised as bringing Arabic numerals to Europe after a visit to the Iberian Peninsula.

By the 15th century in Europe, the Hindu-Arabic numeral system replaced the older Roman numeral system which had been in use for many centuries.


The influence of the Arabic culture, language and knowledge on many European and English languages shows the far-reaching impact of a mighty people, whose effect can still be seen today.

If you know of any Arabic words which have influenced other languages please share them in the comments below.