To begin, here’s the story of a false cognate called lamoon. In Egyptian Arabic, lamoon means what you’d think it means: lemon. But in Lebanese Arabic, the sort I’ll (attempt to) speak for the next year, lamoon means, of all things, tangerine. This is not the grandfather of all linguistic inconveniences, but it is a close relative.

Okra is bamiya, but okra means doorknob. Potato is baTaTis, while sweet potato is the uncomfortably similar baTaTa. Onion is basal, which is not quite basil, but is nearly basil.

My favorite (and most inevitable) inter-Arabic blunder may end up with me drinking cups of sweat. The word ara, in Egyptian, means sweat, but in Lebanon, the same word refers to what was described to me as a milky-salty-yet-somehow-popular libation.

Fil mishmish means impossible, though it literally translates to “in the apricot.” This is not to get confused with mish filfil, which means “not pepper.”

If you are any kind of a linguist—or a fan of Tolkien—here’s something that will be the most satisfying thing you read this week. The Egyptian word for dates (the food kind) is balaH, which is also, interestingly enough, the Elvish word for friend.

Frodo: What’s the Elvish word for friend?

Gandalf: BalaH…. I have no memory of this place.

Last night I asked the guy behind the counter for some tomaya, which is a common food in these parts. “Mumkin tomaya?” I said.

He leaned in. “Eh?” What?

Tomaya,” I said. “Tomaya… To-may-a.”

Still nothing.

I handed him the menu and pointed to the thing I wanted.

Tou-may-a,” he said, as though clarifying, even though I think he said exactly what I said. I am forever doing that these days: saying things “incorrectly” and then having them repeated to me in what appears to be an identical tone, pronunciation, rhythm, tenor, tempo, glottal-ness, what have you.

Here are some things I haven’t figured out yet. The difference between hammam and hammem? One of them means bathroom, and the other means pigeon, and because they eat pigeon around here, that can get awkward quickly when sitting down to the table at your favorite Cairo restaurant. Also, haram v. haram v. harem. One is the pyramids, one is “forbidden,” and one is a place for the king’s wives. Shahr is month, but shaHr is hair… or maybe reverse that. Shara is street and sharia is Islamic law. Sahara, mercifully, is desert. Every desert.

As for the idioms, I like this one. When you say min aayn3’ia, you’re literally saying, “from the eyes,” but what you mean is, “I will do it… with my eyes,” which I guess just means, “I’ll do it.”

The word for news, gadeed, is also the word for new, which is both memorable and confusing.

In the United States, as far as I know—I’m beginning to question if I really know anything about my own language—we only have one or two words for boxes. You just say, “I want a box of whatever,” and people think, Yeah, he said box; I know what he’s talking about. In Egypt, there are upwards of 1,800 words for types of boxes, based sometimes on size, sometimes on material, and sometimes on what is contained within. For example: bako is a small box, often for tea; 3’lba is a box of varying size, but especially the size of a tissue box; sanduu is the box in which pop is carried; and cartona, I think, is a large box that, maybe, must be made of cardboard. Not sure yet. This is all made more complicated by the fact that nearly all the foods you want to get come in all kinds of boxes and other containers. You can, for instance, get milk in any number of boxes, bags, and bottles.

They use weird measuring systems here. Things called celsius and kilos. Haven’t figured it out yet, except that 46 celsius is quite hot and four kilos of bananas is a lot of bananas.

There are also interfaith linguistic issues to look out for. Egyptian Christians don’t typically say salaam alaikum to each other, but Muslims do… and Christian do say it to Muslims, or to delivery people, I guess because the default assumption is that they’re Muslim? Also, despite what you’ve heard, Egyptian Christians refer to Jesus as Yesua. It’s Muslims who call him Isa.

Here’s something that’s confusing: the word for “in front of” is uddam and the word for “behind” is wara. Easy enough. But, when you say inta warak?, you might mean either, “What’s behind you?” or “What have you got coming up?” which strikes me as the exact opposite meaning. If that wasn’t confusing enough, when you say inta uddamak?, you might mean, “What’s in front of you?” or, again, “What have you got coming up?” So, whether it’s behind or in front of you, it is always, apparently, ahead of you.

Lazeez can mean either delicious (as in food) or funny (as in a person), unless you mean a person is delicious, which, if you do, okay.

Funnily, when you want someone to repeat something because it was unintelligible, you say ool tani, which to me seems like one of the most gibberishly baby-drool-esque and unintelligible string of letters possible.

Apparently, the word for bad when describing a person, is wahish. This is also the word for ugly. So it’s unclear to me, when you say a person is wahish, how they know you’re saying they’re bad instead of ugly. Perhaps fortuitously, this has kept me from saying people are bad and/or ugly like I usually do. Wahish (ugly/bad) is also not too far from the word for face, which is wishy. Probably the same root.

The word for dress—fosteyn—is, inexplicably, masculine.

The word for music is, as far as I can tell, seleen dion, or, possibly, michel jack’son.

Now, of course there’s a happy ending here. The word for September is still september. Mohammad is still muhammad. And, no matter what happens, they say Coke and fries, so you know you can still get by.

Posted by Griffin Paul Jackson


  1. It is encouraging for me to hear how carefully the Egyptian Christians distinguish themselves from Muslims. We can learn from their example and always think through the cultural context of the language we use!


  2. I’m pretty sure “seleen dion” is also the word for Canada. Taxi drivers were always correcting me with “saleen dion” whenever I told them I was from Canada.


  3. super interesting! and quite funny. Also, I think much I miss working with you at least once a week! 🙂


    1. *how much!


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