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cropped kufta

Jailbirds, thugs, and kufta: etymology of Arabic words (part 1)

In Arabic there are words that don’t look Arabic – and they aren’t. The etymology of Baltagi, Idda, shanta, daftar, dukkan

Last updated: 7 months ago

Farsi, Greek, and especially Turkish (Ottoman) have left traces in Arabic. Our journey into the of words – foreign words in Arabic.

What does etymology mean?

In Arabic, there are several words that don't look Arabic. In fact, they aren't Arabic; they are foreign words and thus do not follow the rules of Semitic languages. Etymology is very interesting, but it's not really a very systematic science, since each word has its history. Many languages have etymological dictionaries that give the origins of words in addition to their meanings. Unfortunately, I am not aware of any such dictionary for Arabic (if you know one, please let me know).

In this series of articles, we will look at some words that are used mostly in Arabic dialects, but are not of Arabic origin. They mainly have entered Arabic via Farsi, Ottoman Turkish, and Greek.

Not only words were borrowed from other languages, but also grammatical constructions.

Let's start with that.

The additional letter ج or ل

This grammatical construction is found in several, mostly North African-Arabic dialects, if an adjective is derived from a noun.

We call this a (نِسبة). A نِسبة has the ending يّ.

The letter ج

This ending is probably taken from the Ottomans and became widespread in North Africa, but also in Iraq and parts of the Levant. It is mainly used to derive nouns for professions. Notice: In Turkish, the suffix/ending  is used to form nouns of occupation, etc.

For example:


Meaning: The person who makes kufta (Köfte); may denote as well the place where kufta is grilled. Notice: kefteji is also a Tunisian dish!


Meaning: poulterer

3أَوَنْطاجِي or أَوَنْطـَجيجِيّ+أَوَنْطَة

Meaning: deceitful person, swindler


Meaning: thug (Baltagi) – see below

5لومانجي or لِيمانجيجِيّ+لُومان

Meaning: one who is always in and out of prison; jailbird (we will get back to this word in part 2)

The ending لِي

This is common in Egyptian Arabic.


The word بَلْطَجِي (Baltagi)

This is also Turkish origin. It consists of two word: بَلْطَة and جي – see explanation above. This means it denotes one who is carrying a بَلْطَة

So, what is بَلْطَة ? It is an axe or simply a tool to cut trees or wood. Nowadays, it denotes violence, brutality.

During the Ottoman Empire the army had a special force which was called البلطجية, a word that means sapper or pioneer. When the Ottoman Empire became bigger, but also more vulnerable and less controllable, corruption started to spread among soldiers.

Thus, the word البلطجة or البلطجية was used to denote a man or a thief who used force and violence against innocent people.

Nowadays, especially in , the term Baltagi (for a single person) or Baltagiyya is used for thug, gangster, or rowdy. Especially during the regime of Hosni Mubarak, the term البلطجية  (Baltagiyya) was used for thugs commanded by the regime to beat people and demonstrators.

The verb إِدّى

It is used in Egyptian and and means to give; also to hand; to pass (a ball). It is basically the dialect word for أَعْطَى (to give) in Modern Standard Arabic.

The word is perhaps of Pharaonic origin (دي). Since many Egyptians were working in Saudi Arabia it is used there as well nowadays.

Watch out: in Modern Standard Arabic (as well as in Egyptian Arabic), the verb أَدَّى (with فَتْحة) means to direct, to lead, to carry out (in Egyptian Arabic).

The word شَنْطة

In several Arabic dialects, you will find the word شَنْطة used to denote a bag (حَقِيبَة), no matter if it is big (suitcase) or small. It is sometimes also written جنطة and entered Arabic via Ottoman Turkish چانطه ‎(çanta) meaning leather bag, small suitcase.

It is perhaps originally from Persian (چنته). It has also entered the modern Greek language via Turkish; the word tsánta  (τσάντα) means bag as well.

The word دَفْتَر

It is means notebook or register. The term is probably of Farsi origin and means book or office.

The word دُكّان

This word is found in several Arabic dialects and means shop or store (مَحَلّ). It is perhaps of Persian origin. It also entered the Turkish language. The word dükkân means shop.

Interesting topics related to Egyptian Arabic:

Picture credit: Image by Abdessamad Karmoun from Pixabay

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5 years ago

i can give you reference (and sometimes copy) of etymology books. DO you read Arabic well?

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Prison, ice cream, and shoes - etymology of Arabic words (part 2)

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