Thursday, April 19, 2018

Words from Egypt & Niger-Congo

Words from Egypt & Niger-Congo

This week’s celebration of one African language & one African language family follows last week’s post on Bantu & Kimbundu. English gets its words from many sources.

The word ibis, meaning a stork-like bird came to English in the 1300s from Egyptian. Though modern English speakers use the word ibis to refer to dozens of different types of birds, only one ibis is the sacred ibis of Egypt (Threskiornis aethiopicus), for whom all the others were named. 

Mumbo-jumbo came to English meaning big, empty talk in 1786 from a language spoken in the region of Niger, from a language in the Niger-Congo family of languages.

Caiman (or cayman) showed up in English in the 1570s & appears to have navigated some messy linguistic waters through Carib and Spanish. Etymologists’ best guess is that the Nile crocodile or one of its close cousins was called caiman by people of the Congo region, who were enslaved by Europeans & brought to the new world. The etymologically messy part of the equation is that today’s caimans are South American alligators, yet the word caiman is not applied these days to any animals of the African continent.

The Niger-Congo language family also gave us the word tango, through Argentinian Spanish. Starting on the African continent as tamgu, to dance, it made its way to South America, before arriving in Europe & installing itself in the English language in 1913.

The word pharoah made its long way from Egyptian through Hebrew, Greek, & Latin to land in Old English over a century ago. Pharoah comes from the Egyptian word pero, which means great house.

Oasis landed in English in the early 1600s from Egyptian after a trip through Hamitic, Greek, Latin, & French. The original Egyptian word appears to come from a word meaning dwelling place.

Though no one is certain, it appears the word canopy came from Egyptian, arriving in English in the 1300s after touching down in Greek, Latin, & Old French. The Greek form meant Egyptian couch with mosquito curtains, & the Egyptian source word for canopy meant gnat.

Gum made its way from Egyptian through Greek, Latin, & Old French before arriving in English around 1300. Originally meaning resin dried from the sap of plants, it gained the meaning sweetened gelatin candy mixture in 1827.

Who knew? Thanks for joining me in this romp through a few of the languages that contribute to this wacky & glorious thing we call the English language.

My thanks go out to this week’s sources: Merriam Webster, Collins Dictionary, Wordnik, & Etymonline.


  1. I never until this moment thought about how mosquito-y it must have been in ancient Egypt. All along that muddy Nile. I always thought those canopies pictured over the aristocrats in the pictures were to protect from sun. But of course they needed them for mosquito protection too. Also interesting that "oasis" meant house. I don't think I've ever seen an oasis pictured with a house on it, but I should think they'd make for some valuable real estate.

    1. Hi Anne - thanks for coming by. May your home be an oasis, entirely free of mosquitoes (& gnats).