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Culture & Religion

A Sweet Life in Arabic and English

The Middle East has long acted as a bridge for trade between Asia and Europe and with the exotic new commodities came new names, many of whichsugarcone have passed into English from the Arabic language. With an unrivalled  sweet tooth by both parties, it should be no surprise that some of the words on the list concern these daily addictions to  modern life.


Originally, people chewed the sugar cane raw to extract its sweetness. Indians discovered how to crystallise sugar around 350 CE. Arab entrepreneurs adopted the techniques of sugar production from India and then refined and transformed them into a large-scale industry including sugar mills, refineries, factories and plantations. The 1390s saw the development of a better press, which doubled the juice obtained from the cane. This permitted the economic expansion of sugar plantations to Andalucia and to the Algarve and world-wide cultivation has continued to increase ever since.

In the case of sugar, the etymology reflects the spread of the commodity. The English word ‘sugar’ originates from the Arabic and Persian word shaker, itself derived from Sanskrit sharkara. It came to English by way of French, Spanish or Italian, which derived their word for sugar from the same source.


While now associated with a wide range of sweets, the term originally referred to crystallised sugar derived from Old French sucre candi ‘sugar candy.’ This term came ultimately from the Arabic word qandi, itself derived form Persian and Sanskrit. As late as the twentieth century the refined sugar used for tea in the Middle East came in a hard, packed cone (shaker kand – see photo), which was cut and broken into small pieces and either held in the mouth as tea was sipped or put into a small tea glass. Two cones were gently rubbed together over the bride’s head at weddings to signify a sweet and happy future.

Today this thick, sugary liquid is often flavoured, diluted with water and used as a drink. In this respect, it has Rose-Sherbetreturned to its origins as the Arabic word sharab, meaning a drink. Arabs use the term sherbet, which has also passed into English, when referring to a sweet cold drink, often fruit based.


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