Mai Samih discovers how ancient Egyptian expressions and traditions have survived to the present day
Today’s Egyptians have inherited from their Pharaonic ancestors not only their distinguished civilisation, but also certain traditions and words from their hieroglyphic vocabulary.
Hanging an image of a blue glass eye or a metal hand, called a khamsa wa khemesa, on the wall to protect people from the evil eye is an ancient Egyptian habit. The same is true of the belief that a cat has nine lives. According to the ancient Egyptian religion, cats are the sun god Ra’s incarnation and share some of his characteristics, among them having nine lives.
In the version of Arabic spoken by Egyptians today more customs and traditions can be discovered. This is well illustrated in a book entitled The Origins of Slang Words in the Ancient Egyptian Language by Sameh Maqqar. The author has based his work on books by renowned Egyptian and foreign Egyptologists, including The Ancient Egyptian Language by Abdel-Halim Noureddin, professor of ancient Egyptian at Cairo University, and Egyptian Grammar by the British Egyptologist E A Wallis.
Maqqar’s book uncovers, through many ancient Egyptian words, the characteristics of the ancient Egyptians, together with the kinds of lives they lived.
According to Maqqar, a modern Egyptian is given his share of the language used by his forefathers in the cradle. This is exemplified in the early vocabulary used by Egyptian children today. For example, embo (I’m thirsty) is the Egyptian slang children use to communicate their thirst. It is derived from the combination of two ancient Egyptian words eb (I want) and mo (water) and changed to its current form for ease of pronunciation.
Ta ta (go step by step) is Egyptian slang derived from the ancient Egyptian ti ti, which has evolved into the Coptic ta ta and the Arabic yat’e (to step). The name of queen Nefertiti is derived from this word, as it means “beauty walks slowly”.
Tuta tuta (the end) is Egyptian slang derived from the ancient Egyptian word twt (done). The expression is still used by parents to end a bedtime story told to their children today. Mam (food) is an Egyptian slang word derived from the ancient Egyptian word wnm (food). Nunu (baby) is an Egyptian slang word derived from the word nu (fragile), which was developed in Coptic to its current form. Heey is an Egyptian slang word used by children to express happiness, which in ancient Egyptian was hy and had the same meaning.
Maqqar, in his book, says that when parents bring up their children they often use an imaginary, usually scary, creature to scare them with when they are naughty. For example, boa boa, the Egyptian slang for ghost, was originally an ancient Egyptian word written ba ba or ba baw and referring to the god who, according to the Book of the Dead, was the elder son of the god Osiris and was believed to be the name of the ghost magicians used to conjure up in black magic. The name changed in Coptic to bo bo and in Greek to fobo, the origin of the word “phobia”, according to Maqqar.
Even the motion of children and animals is recorded in the language, Maqqar says. Fot fot or fat is modern Egyptian slang meaning jump. Originally, it was an ancient Egyptian word with the same pronunciation, spelling and meaning as today, and it is still used, especially in Upper Egypt.
Like in any society, the ancient Egyptians had social class divisions and with them came different lifestyles, Maqqar notes. This is apparent in types of bread like betaw, an Egyptian slang word for “cheap bread”, originally derived from the ancient Egyptian words bat (the) and taw (bread). Bread was baked in the homes of peasants, as is still the habit in some parts of the country today. The stages of baking bread were illustrated on the walls of tombs, and these are similar to the methods used in villages today, Maqqar says.
People who lived in the countryside, especially the poor, ate bread similar to this prepared with corn flour, while people in the city, especially the higher and middle classes, ate bread prepared with wheat flour, according to the famous Egyptian historian Ahmed Amin’s book A Dictionary of Egyptian Customs, Traditions and Expressions.
Ful, the Egyptian word for cooked fava beans, was derived from the ancient Egyptian word bul with the same meaning, Maqqar writes. It was changed in Coptic to ful and then in Arabic also to ful.
As the ancient Egyptians feared their rulers, they had many words to describe them that are still present in modern Egyptian slang. Shana we ranna is an Egyptian slang expression for “famous and great” and is derived from the ancient Egyptian words snw (high position or status) and rn (greatness/glory), which are adjectives used to describe kings.
Pharoun in Egyptian slang, or “pharaoh” in English, is a word derived from the ancient Egyptian words br (house) and ah (great). It was developed in Coptic to para’ou. Amir, an Arabic word meaning prince, was originally taken from the ancient Egyptian words ami (from) and r (mouth) combined and meaning “he whose orders are taken from his mouth,” which was also used for princes. The Egyptian slang words miri (official) and amara (evidence) are also believed to be derived from the same words, according to Maqqar.
Because the ancient Egyptians lived in an agricultural society, just as many of their descendants do today, ancient Egyptian words like dr (to sift) that were used in the past by Egyptian farmers can be traced in the word dari (to sift) used today. Toria is an Egyptian slang word for “axe,” a tool used in farming derived from the ancient Egyptian word tor (cane) and then developed into the Coptic word tori.
The ancient Egyptians also had names for all kinds of landscapes, calling an oasis wahat, for example, which is almost the same as the word in modern Arabic, waha.
AGRICULTURAL LANDSCAPES: Living in an agricultural society made the ancient Egyptians advanced in the mathematics of measuring, and they came up with the names of units like shseb (the width of an open hand), which is still used by Egyptians today as shebr, a measurement unit equal to nine inches or 23 centimetres, says Maqqar.
They also had names for waterways that are still used today in Egyptian Arabic and in Arabic itself, including baar (sea), developed in Arabic as bahr (sea) and berkat (lake), or berka in Egyptian Arabic. Meanwhile, the word baar in hieroglyphic means well, becoming be’r in Arabic, while etro (stream) was developed into teraa, according to Maqqar. The ancient Egyptians had names for different types of boats. For example, a yacht was named khwkht in their language, which is the origin of the word currently used in Arabic.
They also used words to describe the weather that are still used today. The word fog, for example, was in ancient Egyptian shab (changed) and ra (sun), which developed in Coptic to shabra and is now shabura in Egyptian Arabic. If the word shabura is used with the verb yaamel (“to do”) it means “to distract someone”. Ghagha means the same thing as shabura, and it is derived from the ancient Egyptian word ghaghati (storm), or ghagha in Coptic.
Maqqar notes in his book that when Egyptians are angry they may use the vocabulary their forefathers left them, including words like efesh (a person or thing with a bad appearance), which is an Egyptian slang word derived from the ancient Egyptian word ebshay (beetle) as it was believed by our ancestors that a beetle ate the bodies of the dead.
“This is why mummies are depicted in the Book of the Dead with knives to protect them from such insects,” Maqqar says. He adds that the ancient Egyptians loved the colours blue, green and white as they thought these would bring them good fortune and happiness. They even named the days after colours, like these in the shape of the expression “Have a white day,” meaning “Have a happy day”. The colour green was a sign of prosperity for them as their wealth came from the crops they grew.
Ehna han hamr’a (are you going to break your promise?), Maqqar says, is an Egyptian slang expression which is said if a person feels that he has been deceived or tricked by someone. It is derived from the combination of the two hieroglyphic words ham (to escape) and ra (mouth), giving the idea of escaping from the mouth or from words, or, in other words, breaking a promise.
Kham (cheating) is an Egyptian slang word that was also used by the ancient Egyptians, while the Arabic word seif (sword) is derived from the ancient Egyptian word sft and the Greek word csifos with the same meaning. Qalaa (citadel) is derived from the ancient Egyptian combination of two words, ka (high/tall) and ah (great/big).
Maqqar says that the ancient Egyptians were usually cheerful, so they had many words to express the state of happiness, like kar kar (to laugh), which is still used today. The word rewesh (be happy), sometimes believed to be an invention of modern Egyptian youth, is in fact of ancient Egyptian origin and comes from the word rsw (to make someone happy) or the word wrsh (to spend time). It was developed in Coptic to the word raawsh (to take care of). The word makh makh (think extensively) comes from the ancient Egyptian word mkh (mind).
The ancient Egyptians were religious people, so it is no wonder that the origin of the words used at the end of prayers by Christians, Muslims and Jews, Amen, Ameen, and Aman, respectively, are in fact ancient Egyptian. They are derived from the name of the ancient Egyptian god Amun, whose name as stated in the Book of the Dead means “he who is not seen by human eyes”.
Egyptians are known to be friendly and hospitable people, much like their ancestors, as Maqqar sees in the origin of the expression ok’oud khamsa (sit for a while), used to offer a guest a seat. It is derived from the ancient Egyptian word hmz (sit) and was developed into hamsi (sit) in Coptic.
Bel hana wal-shefa (enjoy your meal in good health) is an Egyptian expression said when a guest enjoys the food presented to him. It is believed to be derived from the words hnw (happiness/joy) and shefa (the food and drink of the gods). The Arabic word rahab (to greet) is derived from the ancient Egyptian word rahbo (vast). According to Amin, it has always been the custom of Egyptians to be generous to guests. They would insist that guests eat well and would prepare lavish feasts for them. They still do.
The ancient Egyptians also loved to wear fine clothes and accessories, as is shown in their vocabulary shared with other languages. For example, halaq (earring) is derived from the ancient Egyptian word hlka, in Coptic hlk. Although the Egyptian expression halaq alaya (to catch me) has a different meaning, halaq is derived from the same ancient Egyptian word. The names of clothes, like galabeya (gown), are from the ancient Egyptian word garbo with the same meaning, or kolobia in Coptic.
Futa is an Egyptian slang word for “towel” and comes from the word ft (cobra), as the ancient Egyptians named animals according to their motion or behaviour. For example, a snake would “wipe” the ground while it moves, like a towel is used to wipe the face. The word hafi (bare-footed) is also an Egyptian Arabic word of the same origin. It is believed that the ancient Egyptian name for the River Nile, Hapi, was derived from the same word as its water “snakes” its way through the land, says Maqqar.
The ancient Egyptians were also advanced in the field of medicine so they had names for many diseases. They called the condition of a cross-eyed person hal, which is the origin of the Arabic word hawal. The word wakhz (wound) was used by the ancient Egyptians to describe pain in a part of the human body and is used in the same way in Arabic today.
Asthma, the English word for the chronic respiratory disease, is derived from an ancient Egyptian name for the god of darkness, etmo, whose presence the ancient Egyptians believed “took the light out of the eyes” of people making darkness prevail. The word was then used to mean “lack of breath and lack of light” or “suffocation” or “blindness”.
In hieroglyphics, the word has a special sign before it called “the bird of evil” to show that it is an evil word. The word was used by the Greeks as asthma-tos and “isthmus,” meaning a narrow piece of land that joins two bigger pieces. The Arabic words hatam (destroy), khetam (end) and tam (done) are derived from the same word. The Egyptian slang word atma (darkness) is also derived from the word etmo.
Al-mawt is an Egyptian Arabic word meaning “death,” which is also the ancient Egyptian word for “death or moving to the afterlife”. However, strangely enough the ancient Egyptians used the same word to say “mother,” probably because a mother was the way a person would come into the world of the living.
They also had names for the parts of the human body that are mostly used as they are today in Egyptian Arabic, such as koua’ (elbow), derived from the ancient Egyptian word kah, and kaf (hand in Egyptian Arabic), derived from the ancient Egyptian word kb (palm of the hand). The letter “p” changed to the letter “f” as they are close in pronunciation, says Maqqar.
The ancient Egyptians were advanced in the field of astronomy, and the word “agenda” is derived from the ancient Egyptian word jnout (date-news). The ancient Egyptian word shamsh (sun) is used as it is today in Arabic with a slight change in pronunciation as shams (sun), says Maqqar.
Maqqar has also discovered traces of the ancient Egyptian language in modern English, such as the word “desert”, which is derived from the ancient Egyptian word dshrt (desert). The same goes for the word “beem,” derived from the word byt (bee), and the word “top,” which is an ancient Egyptian word with the same meaning and spelling. The word “net” is derived from the word nt, which was the name of an ancient Egyptian goddess who blessed the equipment of fishermen, he says.
The ancient Egyptians were romantic, and they expressed their feelings in words that are still traceable in slang today, like han (to miss someone), derived from the word hn (to miss), and raq (to be gentle), also taken as it is from the ancient Egyptians. The Arabic word hawa (to fall in love) is also derived from the ancient Egyptian word hay (to fall), Maqqar says.