The Wide World of Word Origins: English Words Derived from Arabic

All of the English words on this lists have Arabic origins. While some, like caliph and imam, clearly come from Arabic sources, you might be surprised to discover that algebra, chemistry, and zero are also derived from Arabic. Learn these words that contribute to the richness and variety of the English language.
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Full list of words from this list:

  1. admiral
    the supreme commander of a fleet
    He spent his career in the Navy, achieving the rank of admiral and last serving in Tampa, Fla., as the commander of special operations.New York Times (Jun 17, 2018)
  2. afghan
    a blanket knitted or crocheted in strips or squares
    Sunshine, in fact, bathed the entire afghan, and the play of warm, brilliant light in the pale-blue wool was in itself well worth beholding.Franny and Zooey
  3. alchemy
    a pseudoscientific forerunner of chemistry in medieval times
    It seemed so simple and so prodigious at the same time that overnight he lost all interest in his experiments in alchemy.One Hundred Years of Solitude
  4. alcove
    a small recess opening off a large room or garden
    It was a small house, a lot like our apartment except for two extra rooms: a small dining room and a small alcove off the living room.Kira-Kira
  5. algebra
    the mathematics of generalized arithmetical operations
    A student must become adept with numbers and other symbols, various rules of algebra and calculus to manipulate symbols, and several functions.Scientific American (Apr 13, 2018)
  6. algorithm
    a precise rule specifying how to solve some problem
    “We are developing algorithms that self-learn based on bodily reactions,” he said, referring to the machine-generated code that determines the vehicle’s path.New York Times (Jan 17, 2020)
  7. amber
    a hard yellowish to brownish translucent fossil resin
    With its yellow-brown translucence, amber is beautiful on its own, but it is prized by scientists because of what is sometimes found within: flora and fauna.Washington Post (Jan 11, 2020)
  8. arabesque
    an intricate ornament that interlaces simulated foliage
    There was no decoration on the outside, no roses, no arabesques.The New Yorker (Dec 30, 2019)
  9. arsenal
    all the weapons and equipment that a country has
    Earlier this month, they unveiled new weapons technology that they said would let them develop a more advanced arsenal of ballistic missiles.Washington Post (Feb 21, 2020)
  10. assassinate
    murder; especially of socially prominent persons
    Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. fought for civil rights and economic justice during his career as a minister and social activist, eventually losing his life after being assassinated in 1968.Salon (Jan 21, 2020)
  11. caliph
    the civil and religious leader of a Muslim state
    Later on in that century, following the death of the Prophet Muhammad, a dispute erupted over who should succeed as "khalifa", or caliph, to rule the burgeoning Islamic empire.BBC (Jan 9, 2016)
  12. chemistry
    the science of matter
    Arnold works as a chemical engineer at the California Institute of Technology and won the Nobel Prize in chemistry with two other scientists for their work on the evolution of enzymes.Fox News (Jan 3, 2020)
  13. cipher
    a message written in a secret code
    In a cipher, each letter in a message is replaced by another letter or a number.George Washington, Spymaster
  14. decipher
    make out the meaning of
    Before children learn to read, they learn to decipher pictures: smiling faces, furry animals, snowflakes.New York Times (Nov 27, 2019)
  15. elixir
    a substance believed to cure all ills
    Sammy was seeking the elixir of life, “the great panacea” pursued by centuries of alchemists.New York Times (Jun 20, 2019)
  16. emir
    an independent ruler or chieftain
    The emirs of Kuwait and Qatar, the king of Bahrain and the Tunisian president were among the foreign leaders who travelled to Muscat for the ceremony at al-Alam Palace.BBC (Jan 12, 2020)
  17. ghoul
    an evil spirit or ghost
    One grave in every graveyard belongs to the ghouls.The Graveyard Book
  18. imam
    the person who leads prayers in a mosque
    Amu, “uncle” in Arabic, is Mom’s brother and the imam, or prayer leader, of the mosque here in town.Saints and Misfits
  19. minaret
    a slender tower with balconies, especially on a mosque
    At Samarra, in northern Iraq, I climbed to the top of the wondrous spiral minaret of what was once the town's Great Mosque.The Guardian (Feb 12, 2012)
  20. nadir
    the lowest point of anything
    All this churned the stomachs of French voters and sent his popularity plunging to a nadir from which it never recovered.The Guardian (Jun 13, 2012)
  21. sultan
    the ruler of a Muslim country
    The sultan is the paramount decision-maker in Oman, and also holds the positions of prime minister, supreme commander of the armed forces, minister of defence, minister of finance and minister of foreign affairs.BBC (Jan 12, 2020)
  22. zero
    the mathematical symbol 0 denoting absence of quantity
    It uses a scale on which 100 is very clean and zero is very corrupt.Seattle Times (Jan 22, 2020)
Created on January 24, 2020 (updated March 9, 2020)

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