Most people recognize Ancient Greek and Latin as the primary donors to the English language. However, some of the most ancient words in English actually trace back to Ancient Egypt.
Distinct from the contemporary Egyptian Arabic spoken today, Ancient Egyptian is a unique Afro-Asiatic language that doesn’t really share similarities with other languages in the family (like Arabic, Hebrew, or Berber).
How Ancient Egyptian words made their way into English also boggles the mind. The region’s history of conquering civilizations, like Greece (Alexander the Great), Rome (Ptolemy and Marc Antony), and much later, France (Napoleon Bonaparte), Ancient Egyptian words entered English as a result of contact between Egyptians and native speakers from those regions.
Here is the journey of few English words that were once part of Ancient Egyptian:
Do you know Ancient Egyptias also who chewed “qmy” or “qemi”? You can still see the phonological resemblance after thousands of years! The g in English is simply q’s voiced counterpart.
Translated as “gum” or “resin,” qmy came from tree sap, a meaning that actually relates to gum’s earliest appearance in English, when gum originally referred to “a viscous secretion of some trees and shrubs...”
Ancient Egyptians chewed qmy on its own and also used the sap as a flavoring agent in food. King Tut’s great-grandparents were buried in a tomb filled with, among other gifts for the afterlife, beef ribs covered in pistachio “gum”-or qmy resin from a pistachio-like tree. The stuff was expensive and had to be imported so very likely, qmy was only available to powerful pharaohs and the wealthy who could afford it. Now, gum is one of the cheapest things!
Deriving from the Ancient Egyptian “hbny”, ebony originally described wood from the beautiful ebony tree, as it still does today. The Ancient Egyptian word might even trace further back to another African language.
Ebony is a hardwood tree originally from Ethiopia and was probably one of the earliest trade-commodities in the world. Like the gum of the pistachio tree, ebony was imported by the wealthiest classes in Ancient Egypt, who used it for furnishings and decorative carvings. Because it’s so rare, ebony is still considered an elite wood today.
And, don’t think Ebony wasn’t a name in Ancient Egypt-King Thutmose III named his pet puppy Hbny and had him painted beside him in his tomb.
It comes from the Ancient Egyptian words ab, “elephant,” and abu, “elephant’s tooth.” Ivory was another important and expensive import commodity in Ancient Egypt, brought in on the Nile from Nubia. The material appeared everywhere, in carvings, artworks, furniture, cosmetic containers, game pieces, and arrow tips.
Adobe now signifies one of the biggest brand names in computer software, a total contrast to the word’s semantic origins in humble earthen-clay. And the name for the humble brick doesn’t originate from a Pueblo Native-American language, as many might think, but from the Ancient Egyptian word “djebe” or “djobe”, meaning “mud brick.” The word morphed into Arabic as at-tub (“the brick”) and was adopted into Spanish as adobe in the 8th century, when Arabs from northern Africa crossed over into Spain. Spanish settlers introduced adobe bricks to Pueblo Indians in America in the 1500s. (Pueblo, by the way, is also a Spanish word, meaning “village.”)
Moors, Arabs, and Spaniards carried on a building tradition established by the Ancient Egyptians, who built vaulted djobe constructions, remains of which still survive in some cases. The djobe vaults were built above ground in homes and stores, and in underground tombs. Many of them were used as storerooms for goods, grains, and offerings.
You may not be able to see ammonia, but you can definitely smell its pungent odor. Used in everything from cleaning solutions (ironically) to plastics and refrigeration, the colourless gas gets its name from the Ancient Egyptian god Amun (changed to Ammon by the Greeks). Worshipers of Amun performed spiritual rites with ammonia in the god’s honor.
Why ancient peoples thought a god would appreciate a substance naturally derived from waste and organic decaying matter is beyond us. But, how fitting that the stinky gas goes by a name inspired by a god who appreciated all creatures, great or small, living or dead, from head to tail.
In Ancient Egyptian, the name Amun (or imn) means “the Hidden (One)”- much like the SBD gas.
The word oasis has always inspired calm and replenishment. Today, it can refer to any mental or physical space in which to relax and recharge. In its original sense, oasis also refers to a fertile location in the arid desert. Few and far between, these watering holes are like sparkling jewels to desert travelers. Or, to use the original Ancient Egyptian word, like wehe, “cauldrons” in the sand.
The wehes or oases formed natural cavities in the earth that Ancient Egyptians perceptively likened to deep vessels used to prepare life-giving sustenance and magical elixirs.
Barge / Embark
King Tut probably would have called his boat a barge (though, technically, in Ancient Egyptian, the word was bar or bari). Bars, or barges, were key modes of transport on the ancient highway of the Nile. They transported royalty, peasants, food and commodities, and thousands of pounds of rock to build temples, obelisks, palaces, and pyramids.
On its etymological voyage, bar became barca in Latin, and then barque (“small boat”) in French-the French formation, by the way, is the ancestor of the English verb embark.
Compiled by Khizra Akhlaq