There’s a popular myth that each Arabic word can denote itself, its opposite, and a kind of camel. Another version of this is that “Every Arabic word has a basic meaning, a second meaning which is the exact opposite of the first, a third meaning which refers to either a camel or horse, and a fourth meaning that is so obscene that you’ll have to look it up for yourself.” [source].

One possible example of this is rass (رأس ?), which apparently means to eat a lot, to eat a little, and a camel with especially hairy ears*.

I haven’t been able to find this word in any online dictionaries – does anybody know if it actually exists? Are there any other examples of words like this?

[*From: The Secret Life of Words – How English Became English by Henry Hitchings]

This entry was posted in Arabic, Language, Words and phrases.

11 Responses to Camels

  1. Declan says:

    German umlernen seems to be a bit like that. Apparently it can mean both to relearn and to unlearn, but I’m not sure.

  2. Greg says:

    The word that is referenced is the word for ‘head’ and nothing else. In speaking with my Arab friends, this is not a general precept of any kind. Arabic uses a consonant group to denote semantically similar things
    such that sfr is usually for travel of some kind and the vowels and endings are different for conjugations, nouns, etc. Most vowels are not denoted by a letter but by one of four main diacritical marks indicating vowel sounds (like Hebrew and other semitic languages). So, perhaps it’s possible that a misunderstanding of the mechanics of Arabic means that they might believe that it is the same word when actually they are different. It would be like saying that st means sat and sit and in English all words are the same for either present or past tense. If that were true of Arabic, that would make context too critically important to be really useful for precise things.

  3. TJ says:

    As an Arab, the Word Ra’s refers to the following:

    1. Head (prime meaning)
    2. used for counting number of cows or sheep (50 ra’s would be 50 sheep. Sheep and goats are more common to come with this word).

    3. For the top of something. Like “ra’s al h^arbah” (head of the spear), which is also used for the advanced attacker in the group or for the advanced player in football game.

    4. If we changed the vowels and make it “ra’as” and not “ra’s” then the meaning would be “headed” (past tense masculine 3rd person). Like heading a meeting but this word isn’t used in that sense now but instead we use “tara”as”.

    The myth afore mentioned is something new to me really. I never heard anything like that in my life aas an Arab really.
    True, “some” words in Arabic would give a meaning and its opposite in the same time depending on the context, but not EVERY word. Most of the time, these words come in literature and classical Arabic, and used for eloquent speeches I would say. But there are some reasons for this double sided, and as an example I will list one word here.

    In the gulf area and in most Arabic countries in the Middle East region, the word “Afiyah” عافية means “being in good health”. Usually we say “Ya’teek Al-Afiyah” (i.e. may God give you the good health).
    In Morocco and its surroundings, this sentence is considered bad, because it would mean “may God deliver you to hell!”.
    The reason for that is in both contexts the word is the same, but the original verb from which these nouns were derived are different.
    In the gulf, the base verb يعافي [yo`áfí] (cures, mends, gives good health to). In Morocco, the base verb is considered يعفي [ya`fí] (erases the trace, blanks out..etc). The noun dervied from these 2 verbs (I’ve mentioned them in present tense before) would be the same. Hell in the Arabic literature has many times and many characteristics mentioned for it, and one such characteristics is that it erases the traces of anything or anybody, and hence the name “Afiyah” is used as well in Morocco.

  4. TJ says:

    sorry typo correction “many times” is “many names”

  5. Ivan says:

    It is not in Wehr; therefore it is a falsehood.

  6. Henry Hitchings says:

    My source of information, should you be interested, was Tim Mackintosh-Smith’s book Yemen: Travels in Dictionary Land (London: Picador, 1999), p. 3.

  7. TJ says:

    @Henry: then maybe your source was talking more about the Yemeni dialect of Arabic but not the literature or written (standard) Arabic.
    The names of camels or horses in many times (if not all times) get some weird names that we, literature people, do not understand. Such names or titles given to the camels, sheep, horses..etc, would be more understood by the bedouin or the desert people. Most of the times, such names are made up in their own dialects, which we outselves, people of the urban can hardly understand!

  8. Christopher Miller says:

    It DOES sound a bit like the “hundred Eskimo words for snow” legend…

    As for words having a wide range of meanings — to the extent that some can contradict others in some contexts, this is just a normal feature of human language that results from the use of metonymy and metaphor to extend word meanings to different real-world contexts.

  9. Phil says:

    English is a bit like that. In English, almost every word has two meanings – its primary meaning, and a rude meaning.

    With regard to the Inuit and their snow vocabulary, skiers have a fair few words for snow. And I’m sure horse breeders have a fair few words for horse.

  10. TJ says:

    Addition: in the classical Arabic language, there are said to be around 50 (or some say 90) names for the lion.
    Plus, sometimes in classical Arabic there are some words that describe things in different positions or situations, but in the modern Arabic we would simply see them as many words meaning one thing.

  11. Chris Miller says:

    Again, dependent on one’s culture and the pragmatic situation and easily interpreted for someone steeped in the particular cultural assumptions, associations and world view of a given group in a given place and time. just think of the “kennings” of Old English poetry, for example, or the once commonplace European classical and biblical allusions that now escape those not specifically trained to grasp them. For someone outside the context though, and not familiar with all the nonlinguistic “metaknowledge”, it would definitely seem as if a certain group had a great number of specific words devoted to a given concept.

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