24 July 2007

EG “Presearch”: Random Word Bits

One thing has struck me as I’m looking into things Egyptian…

While English is in the habit of borrowing liberally (some would say excessively…) from other languages, there don’t seem to be a lot of words that we’ve borrowed from Arabic. Or, at least that are recognizable as Arabic words.

Part of the issue is that Arabic has borrowed from some of the same places that English has and sometimes other places borrowed Arabic words that we then borrowed. So when I Googled “English words borrowed from Arabic”, I was really surprised at the results.

A number of science/math words are credited as being Arabic in origin: chemistry, algebra, algorithm, amalgam. And, some surprising (to me) plant and animal words: albacore, albatross, apricot, candy, coffee, cotton, gazelle, giraffe, gerbil, jasmine, lemon, lime, lilac, loofah, sugar, saffron, safflower.

The only Arabic/English word that I could think of before I went looking for them was one that I never found listed: baksheesh. Maybe that’s because it isn’t commonly used as an English word…it’s a word used in its native sense to cover a concept that no English quite matches. Like “kismet” (also a word of Arabic extraction…) or “gesundheit” (from German).

In any case, baksheesh, when used in English is usually meant to imply bribery, extortion or graft…ranging from something just slightly seedy to something completely unscrupulous. In Arabic (and Egyptian practice), it seems to be more like institutionalized tipping.

From what I’ve read, there are 3 different types of baksheesh.

One is a type of charity…money, alms or support given to the poor. It’s a basic tenet of Islam, kind of like the Christian idea “Give alms of thy goods, and never turn thy face from any poor man; and then the face of the Lord shall not be turned away from thee.” Since Islam, Christianity and Judaism all share some of the same roots, this isn’t surprising. Although, in Islam it seems more of a commandment and in Christianity it’s merely strongly encouraged.

A second type is more or less like our concept of ‘tipping’ for services rendered. Here, if the person who cut your hair did a good job, you show appreciation by giving him a little something extra; if the waitress was friendly and efficient beyond simply getting your food in front of you, she gets a bigger tip. There, it sounds like if someone opens the door for you, picks up your bag, pushes the button for your elevator, hands you a square of toilet paper when you enter a public bathroom, etc…you’re expected to give them a little something. Very little…a pound here, a pound there, a pound over and over and over everywhere. I imagine it would begin to feel like thousands of mosquitoes all taking their tiny drop of blood. Enough of them could drain a body.

I read one blog entry that suggested taking cigarettes or cheapie ball point pens to give out as tips. It’s an interesting idea, if it’s actually true. If it’s worth more in baksheesh than I would have paid for it in the U.S., it might be a good trade.

One Egyptian pound, right now, is worth about 18 cents (US).

I saw a 10-pack of pens at the store yesterday (“back to school” sale time) for 50 cents. I have no idea what the least-expensive pack of cigarettes would cost, or how many is in a pack, but between the two, I’d think the pens (at 5 cents each) would have to be the cheaper for me to buy here. But maybe the cigarettes would be “worth more” there in baksheesh...

The third kind of baksheesh is probably where it gets its reputation in English…it’s money paid for ‘the granting of favors’. Want to know a really good spot to view the Sphinx from? Want the lights turned on in the museum you just paid to enter? Want a spoon to eat your soup with? Want the camel to take you BACK to where you got on it?

A bit of baksheesh can make it happen.