The Arab influence in the history of the Iberian Peninsula is notorious. You only need to go to Andalusia and look at some buildings to see it. Language, as part of culture, is also affected by the exchange between two groups, and that’s why there are so many words of Arabic origin in Spanish. Knowing them helps us understand the diversity we come from: being aware of the fact that we use many words of Arabic origin on a daily basis is being aware of the fact that any culture is a mixture of previous cultures. Do you want to discover some of these words? Let’s get straight to it then.
If there is a word that represents Spanish (at least Spanish from southern Spain) anywhere in the world, it’s definitely the interjection olé. It is used with products that are often exported abroad successfully: flamenco, bullfighting (unfortunately), etc. And there are also those who say olé almost every day, to express admiration towards someone for something they have done correctly, for example. What most people don’t know (and it perhaps makes some feel uncomfortable) is that this typically Spanish word is one of the many words of Arabic origin in our vocabulary. Although some people speculate that the expression comes from the Greek word ololizin (ὀλολύζειν), used to express joy, most believe it comes from Arabic. Specifically, from expressions related to Allah, such as allah (similar to the current expression: God) or Wa-llâh (’by Allah’).
Another word of Arabic origin that we often use is, of course, alcohol. And it may seem surprising, since alcoholic beverages are strictly forbidden by Islam, the predominant religion in the Arab world. But meanings change, and it seems that the origin of our current alcohol is al-kuhul, which referred to a cosmetic our ancestors developed that was similar to mascara. The noun was kuhul and al was the article which, as in many other cases, became part of the name when transferred to Spanish. The fact is that any type of distilled liquid started to be called al-kuhul, until only ethanol was called like that, distilled from wine, and so our current alcohol.
By the way, how many Spanish dishes are based on rice? We aren’t going to list them, but we can highlight the most international one, paella, which is already an emoji on WhatsApp. Yes, indeed, the base of another of the emblems of the so-called “Spanish culture” also has a name of Arab origin. The Arabs brought a cereal that is basic to Asian food to the Iberian Peninsula. The word arroz (rice) comes from the Hispanic Arabic arráwz, modified from the classical Arabic word, which in turn comes from Greek. It is a word that sounds very similar in many languages, and that Greek surely took from Persian. In Tamil, for example, it sounds something like aricy. This last word of Arabic origin has travelled quite a bit!
Any culture is a mix of many others, there is no doubt about that. At Ontranslation we wouldn’t know how to determine the main constituents of the shared culture in Spain, but we do know that the stereotype that defines it is flamenco, paella, bulls and wine, although, obviously, not everyone lives off the stereotypes alone. The really curious thing is that there is a clear Arab influence in all these typical elements. Now you know, the next time someone uses a cliché, tell them about this!