You can call me Al
- July 18, 2023
- Armand D'Angour
The surname of the new Wimbledon champion, Carlos Alcaraz, is a reminder of the enduring Arabic influence on European languages.
In a curious byway, the triumph at Wimbledon of the young Spanish tennis-player Carlos Alcaraz led to a question about his surname. The simple answer is that Alcaraz is a town in the Albacete region of Spain. But as linguists will confirm, all Spanish proper nouns beginning with Al- derive from Arabic words, since al (also transliterated el) is the Arabic definite article, ‘the’. Al might appear within as well as in front of a Spanish name. The river of Guadalquivir is named after the Arabic words for ‘the great wadi’ (oasis) – wadi al kabir. The word order is typical: just as we say ‘Alfred the Great’, and not ‘the Great Alfred’, a definite article preceding an adjective (in this case ‘great’) will be placed after the noun. The same order is commonly found in Arabic names, which can sometimes simply indicate a place of origin (for example, Al Masry means ‘the Egyptian’), or might otherwise be an honorific way of saying the name, as in that of the Egyptian president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi. Mohammed al-Fayed, former owner of Harrods, was said to have added the al to his original name Fayed to make it sound more august; he himself explained that it was simply a mark of his being the eldest in his family.
In the case of Alcaraz, the town from which the tennis champion’s name derives is named after the Arabic al karas, meaning ‘the cherry’. The Turkish town on the Black Sea coast, Giresun, also means ‘cherry’, and that name evolved from the original name given to it by ancient Greek settlers of that coast in the eighth century BC, who called it Kerasous. It was from that town, its name Latinised as ‘Cerasus’, that the fruit was first imported to France and called ‘cherise’; hence the name given to the fruit (Giresun still produces cherries, but is now better known for hazelnut production). As in other English adoptions of French names ending in ‘s’ sounds, ‘cherise’ was heard as a plural, ‘cherries’, and ‘cherry’ then was invented as its singular form by the linguistic process technically known as ‘back-formation’ (just as the singular ‘pea’ was back-formed from an original ‘pease’, as found in ‘pease-pudding’).
The town Alcaraz is in the Spanish province of Albacete, itself from the Arabic al-basit, the plain. The name Alcaraz might be easily confused with Alcatraz, the island in San Francisco bay once notorious as a secure prison (now a US national park). Alcatraz had originally taken its name from a nearby island called by Spanish explorer and cartographer Juan Manuel de Ayala ‘La isla de los alcatraces’, ‘the island of the pelicans’, from an old Spanish word for the bird derived from Arabic al ghattaz (‘the diving bird’). From a distortion of that same word arose the name ‘albatross’, a change influenced by the Latin word for white, ‘alba’.
Some of the most well-known English words of Arabic derivation begin with Al. ‘Alcove’ is from al qobba, vault; ‘alchemy’ comes from al khimia, chemistry (originally from Greek chymia, ‘mixing’); algebra comes from al jabr, ‘restoration’ (of broken parts). The name of the star Algol means ‘the ghoul’ from al ghol; and the computer language of that name, which is an abbreviation of ‘algorithmic language’, incorporates the word ‘algorithm’, which comes from the name of the ninth-century mathematician who wrote the earliest book on algebra, al Kwarizmi, ‘the Chorasmian’ – a name that summons up the ‘hushed Chorasmian waste’ (in Uzbekistan) described by Matthew Arnold in his poem Sohrab and Rustum.
The most famous of all borrowings from Arabic is of course ‘alcohol’. This was taken from the Arabic al kohl, containing the word still used (kohl) for the cosmetic, a form of antimony, traditionally used as black eyeliner. The term was adopted into Latin to refer to fine powder (from which kohl is made) and thence to the products of any purification process. It came into common use in England with its current meaning only in the eighteenth century. For Alcaraz, however, the alcoholic celebration of his spectacular win will have been no more than the cherry on the cake.