Shemagh.

A MetaFilter post included a video on “how to wear a shemagh,” and I left a comment saying:

In case anybody else is ignorant/curious, like me, it turns out a shemagh is what I knew as a keffiyeh; Wiktionary says it’s “British military use, from Arabic شْمَاغ (šmāḡ).” Which would explain why Yanks like me don’t know it.

Another commenter wrote:

languagehat: I think the “shemagh” term is gaining heavy use in the US – at least among military and wannabees – thanks to US military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan. Which means that various edc/prep/etc places sell them but with zombie skulls on them and such.

So of course now I want to know: do you, Varied Reader, know this term, and if so where do you know it from?

Comments

  1. /nɛvəhʌjdəvɪt/

  2. I mostly hear ‘kufiyyah’. I have encountered ‘shemagh’ in English as well, though rarely. In Arabic I’ve only heard it called ‘kufiyya’ (which means ‘Kufan’ ie. something with the Iraqi city of Kufa) or ‘hatta’. There are other names for it in Arabic as well. In Iran it is called ‘chaffiyeh’ which comes from the Iraqi pronunciation of ‘kufiyya’ as Iraqis (and some rural Palestinians) tend to pronounce [k] as [ch].

  3. Curious, but not necessarily educated, minds want to know whether the word is related to the ancient city of Shamakhi.

  4. From its phonology, I would guess Turkish. It seems that my searches (in Arabic) give a bunch of etymologies, but the Turkish one seems to be the most frequent – the source might very well be the verb: yaşmak (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yashmak).

    The name’s popular in the Arabian Peninsula and the deserts near it. In Saudi, the šumāɣ is only used for the red (or other colored) and white checkered kufiyyah. They use ɣutra (no guesses as to its origin) for the completely white one.

  5. In six months in Jordan I only ever heard keffiyah.

  6. New to me. With the understanding that ngram is not without flaws, I do wonder what accounts for the spike in the late 1950s.

  7. J.W. Brewer says:

    For some reason this word (which was not previously known to me) looks not-at-all-Arabic to me, but instead looks rather Gaelic. I’m just not sure whether it rhymes with Armagh or with shillelagh.

  8. Perhaps the Turkish yaşmak, face covering (Old Turkic yaş-, to hide, plus the noun suffix –mak as in ekmek, bread, çakmak, flint, cigarette lighter, tokmak, mallet, and Old Turkic armak, deceit, distinct from the general verbal noun ending -mak), was assimilated to the common Arabic noun pattern fiʿāl for containers, coverings, and things that are wrapped around: libās clothing, ḥizām, belt, saddle girth, ʾizār, loincloth (such as worn on the Hajj), kitāf, cord, epaulet, liḥāf, quilt, night wrapper, liḥām, bridle, ridāʾ robe, mantle (such as worn on the Hajj), and well-known to English-speakers, ḥijāb, covering, partition, hijab. (The first vowel is reduced or syncopated in colloquial dialects—thus fʿāl, written in English as shmagh—or with rounding from the m, realized as fuʿāl, written in English as shumagh.)

    As for the origin of the word غترة ġutra (in the Wehr-Cowan dictionary, for example, as غطرة ġuṭra), it is doubtless cognate with Phoenician ʿṭrt, wreath, and Hebrew עֲטָרָה ʿăṭārâh, crown, from עָטַר ʿāṭar, to surround, and further to Syriac ܥܨܪ ʿṭar, to press, squeeze. I am not aware of any secure Akkadian cognates. The correspondence between the Arabic ghayn ġ and the ayin ʿ in the West Semitic cognates is regular. The (writing with) loss of emphasis in colloquial Arabic can be perhaps explained by the following by the proximity of r. (Wehr-Cowan also note that ġutra is the term for the keffiyeh current in the Najd and Bahrain.)

  9. P.S.: If the Turkish etymology for šmāġ is correct, the غ ġ in it would be from the Turkish stem before vowel initial suffixes, as in yaşmağın “your yashmak” or definite accusative yaşmağı, the loanword in Arabic preserving the original Turkish pronunciation of ğ as [ɣ] (compare, for example, Levantine colloquial Arabic duġra, duġre, etc., “straight ahead, honest”, from Turkish doğru).

  10. minus273 says:

    Wow, what a stately etymology!

  11. P.S.: If the Turkish etymology for šmāġ is correct, the غ ġ in it would be from the Turkish stem before vowel initial suffixes

    I was just going to ask about that! Looks pretty convincing.

  12. Stanford says:

    As mentioned the schmagh is the term of choice for the military and prepping community.
    There are hundreds of YouTube videos on prepping and preparedness and it would be unusual if you found one that didn’t use the term.
    And they can be found in many “traditional” geometric patterns and colors- not just the mentioned skulls.
    Many of the major online military, law enforcement and camping supply sites sell them for $8-10. I have two and find them quite useful. And I live in the heart of Manhattan.

  13. … wow. I knew about Arabic’s triconsonantal roots that get different vowels inserted, but until Xerîb’s comment I had never realized that the vowel patterns also have consistent meaning. It’s a full-blown combinatorial morphology system based on consonant-vowel intercalation. That’s amazing.

    I don’t know why I find that more beautiful than a morphology system based on attaching segments one after the other, but I do.

  14. Shemagh is very much the quotidian word for the headgear among the expat population in Saudi Arabia’s Eastern Province and the nearby Gulf countries. Unfortunately, even after years working there, my Arabic remains too woeful to know if it is also the most frequently used term among the Arabs of the region themselves.

  15. Rodger C says:

    Reading Xerîb’s comment, I immediately think of Leopold Bloom’s line about “the power of yashmak I mean kismet.”

  16. David Marjanović says:

    It’s a full-blown combinatorial morphology system based on consonant-vowel intercalation. That’s amazing.

    Well, yes. 🙂

  17. Combat Vet says:

    I have an alternate (personally anecdotal) point that when I was in Iraq, as an American attached temporarily to the brits in Basra, “shemaugh” was used more by the U.K. Military, (who’ve traditionally worn issued scarf-like items for years).

    We Americans referred to the ones we wore in combat gear (dark green, light tan) as keffiyehs, understanding that the regular ones of different colors (black, red, blue. Etc.) all meant a variety of different things.

  18. marie-lucie says:

    tangent, David M:

    It’s a full-blown combinatorial morphology system based on consonant-vowel intercalation. That’s amazing.

    I don’t know why I find that more beautiful than a morphology system based on attaching segments one after the other, but I do.

    I agree! Just concatenation (as in Turkish, for instance) makes very long words from little bits you understand one by one. Intercalation is so much more sophisticated!

  19. the regular ones of different colors (black, red, blue. Etc.) all meant a variety of different things.

    Well, sometimes. There’s a joke about it.

    A Hindu decides to sneak into a Sikh temple to see what secret things go on there. [This is a complete libel on the Sikhs, who let people of any faith or none into their gurdarwas, and even feed them without charge, but in the world of jokes such libels are just par for the course.]. So he gets himself up in a turban and a wig and false beard. But he’s challenged at the door:

    “Hey you, are you a Sikh?”

    “Of course!”

    “But you’re wearing the wrong color turban for today!”

    “Oh, I forgot—”

    And then the pseudo-Sikh gets the bum’s rush out the door. The joke is that although Sikhs are required to wear turbans, there is no required color, much less different required colors on different days.

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