More Mozarabic words in English

The Arabic way of life in Spain introduced some traditional musical instruments that hadn’t been part of Europe before. Names of musical instruments were far from standardized in the Middle Ages, perhaps because they were rarely enough seen. Whatever a particular minstrel called his thing, that’s what everyone called it. The ones who had learned to play in Spain or southern France often used Arabic-based words. (During the Cordoba period especially, Arabs contended with Franks to control the southern French coast.)

Both the guitar and the lute came from Arabic. Al-oud became “a lute;” the oud is still an Arabic form of stringed instrument. Another, played with a bow and perhaps borrowed from Byzantine or Persian culture, was the rebec. The Arabic word for drum is “tabl,” which came into medieval Europe as something like “tabor” or “taber.” It became the word for a particular type of drum; another type was the naker, from Arabic nakara, which hung as a pair of small drums at the player’s belt. Trumpets came to Europe from Asia, via Arabic travelers; the earliest trumpet name was Arabic al-nafir, in Spanish aƱafil. They were straight and long, like the brass instruments in paintings of heralds. The earliest oboe/clarinet type of instrument, at the time called the shawm, also came to Europe via Andalusia.

A favorite type of book during the Middle Ages was an encyclopedia of exotic animals, typically called a bestiary. It’s amusing to see how badly artists drew foreign animals or what types of nonsense they believed about them. For example, when the Doge of Venice kept lions for public viewing and the lioness actually gave birth in captivity, it was the first proof the reading public had that bestiaries were wrong in claiming that lion cubs are born dead and then licked into life.

Of course, both India and Africa were rich fields for bestiary writers. Many of the animals they reported were imaginary or compiled, but they included some real ones. Some African animals came to Europe through Arabic reports. The name “giraffe” is probably a native name borrowed into Arabic as “zarafa.” Gazelle came from Arabic “ghazal.” (Most of the other major animals had already entered Latin bestiaries via Greek or some other channel.)

One of our favorite fish is named from Arabic, but not in a way that’s immediately visible because it came to us from Spanish. In the Atlantic, they caught al-tun, and especially the really fat kind that looked like a milk cow, al-bakora. In Spanish, al-tun became atun, and then albacore tuna in English.

The sirocco wind, blowing up from Libya across the Mediterranean toward Europe, was named in Italian after Arabic shoruq, the east wind. The wind also carried sea birds, al-qatraz, whose name came into Spanish as alcatraz, the cormorant. Of course, that’s the name of our former prison island. But the word came into English in another form, too. Adjusted to match Latin “alba” (white), it became the sailors’ favorite sea bird the albatross.

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