Weekend Wehr (because Wednesday is so far away).

It is easy to go astray while looking up words in a dictionary, or it is for me, at any rate. This is partly why reading very advanced texts (or texts on very unfamiliar topics) takes me a while. No matter how hard I try to focus on the word I actually need to look up, I will usually end up going “Ooh” and “Ah!” over other useful, funny or peculiar words and/or roots. I have tried to sit down and browse random pages when not looking up words just to see if I will stumble across something interesting, but it just does not work that way.

These peculiar words, however, almost always turn out to be quite rare. Some of them have a very specific meaning and are found only in a certain religious context, or they are of the kind that is only found in the Koran, or perhaps they just happened to occur, merely by chance, in some corpus used by the author. Not so with today’s word.

عدو الشمس (ʿadū aš-šams): albino. Literally enemy of the sun.For the longest time, I struggled to make sense of this. Should it not be the other way around, that the sun is the enemy of the albino? In time, however, I have come to realise that enmity is probably reciprocal by nature. And if not, well, nobody ever claimed that Arabic makes a lot of sense.

I did read “Men in the sun”, so ...

Now, I like to run every featured word through Google and see what turns up. This time, it turns out that the expression is in daily use. The search gave more than 8 million hits, and I’m not talking about those useless hits I usually get when I enter a couple of Arabic words. No, it seems to be the lay term for a person (or other organism) with albinism. Arabic Wikipedia tells me that the term mahaq (مهق) is used for albinism, and ʾamhaq/mahqāʾ for a man or woman (or male/female animal) with albinism. In my first year of Arabic, I was taught that this pattern is used for colours and defects. Perhaps ʿadū aš-šams isn’t a bad choice after all.

Bonus: I came across this, er, enchanting short story entitled ʿAdū aš-šams. Charming.

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Wednesday Wehr

Lo and behold, Wednesday Wehr is back, sort of. I’m going to dedicate today’s post to a word that I really need to just get out of the way. It’s that one word which astonishes every new Arabic student and which has caused many a surprised outcry and sudden laughter to break the silence in countless libraries across the world. You’ve guessed it, today’s word is:

تهتلر II (tahatlara): to behave like, or imitate, Hitler. The root, if you look it up, is هتلر, which of course is a quadriliteral root based on the name Hitler. Such quadriliteral verbs based on foreign names or verbs are not uncommon. Other examples found in Wehr

Who cares about Hitler? Here's a kitler instead. You know, takatlara - to act like a kitler. Or katlara - to turn your kitten into a kitler.

include بلشف balšafa, to Bolshevize, and اقلم aqlama, to acclimate, acclimatize, adapt, adjust. This form is very much productive today. However, let us try to find out whether tahatlara is in fact in use anywhere.

Google the word and you’ll just have to skip the top hits, they are all rather like this blogpost; i.e. written by Arabic students who find the very concept of having this word hilarious. Skip past the repetitions of a strange poem that implores the reader to “act like Hitler as you like, and be a better doctor than your doctor”, and you will see that yes, apparently, the word is actually used in Modern Arabic, albeit by a very few. (On the other hand, how often can you possibly need to use this word?).

My favourite example is from a piece in Ad-Dustour, date unknown, by Khairi Mansour. The author remembers a time in Moscow when, after a particularly fiery speech was given by Saddam Hussein, former ambassador to Egypt Vasiliev predicted that the Zionists would start comparing Hussein to Hitler, after “the name of the German Führer had changed into a technical term in the political Zionist dictionary”. What is particularly interesting, from a linguistic point of view, is a line in the next paragraph where the word is used in its transitive first form; a form which is not listed in Wehr but is definitely both logical and plausible. Mansour writes: “Only a few years had passed when Vasiliev’s prediction came true and Zionism was able to turn Saddam Hussein into Hitler”. (Arabic: واستطاعت الصهيونية ان تهتلر صدام حسين).

All right, it’s not the most interesting thing to happen in Arabic linguistics since the pidginization theory, but it does confirm that tahatlara is not merely an archaic word known only to the giggling novice student of Arabic. I, for one, find this oddly comforting.

Wednesday Wehr

Dictionaries are more than just books. Not only are they an indispensable tool for language students and scholars alike, they are also treasure chests. You may not be aware of it, but many dictionaries contain rare gems; odd, peculiar, out-of-date or nearly forgotten¹ words that were nonetheless in use at some point² – after all, they were collected and put in there in the first place. These words can be puzzling, amusing or downright disturbing, but they are all noteworthy.

I googled "chameleon + jew" and I got Sacha Baron Cohen. Figures. Since he's handsome, he stays.

The preferred dictionary for most learners of the Arabic language, that Bible of Orientalists; the Hans Wehr Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic³, is full of such words. It is still in near-daily use with me, and as such, I’ve come across many of its treasures over the years. I want to share them with you, so every Wednesday I will present one of my findings here, with explanations and comments. Enjoy!

جمل اليهود (jamal al-yahūd): chameleon. Literally: camel of the Jews. This is listed under jamal (camel), and while it strikes me as, well, odd, I’m sure there is a perfectly reasonable etymological explanation. Somewhere. Wikipedia suggests that the Arabic word for chameleon is حرباء ḥirbāʾ, which is also listed in Wehr with the same meaning. An image search yields some interesting results. See for yourselves. I don’t know how “camel of the jews” came to mean chameleon, but I sure would love to hear the story of it.

¹ Except that the Arabic language doesn’t forget, because it is apparently an elephant.

² Except maybe half the entries in Arakin’s Norwegian-Russian dictionary. He must have made them up.

³ I’m using the fourth edition from Spoken Languages Services, Inc. I’m given to understand that the Librairie du Liban edition might differ slightly from this one.