Back in May of last year, Mark Liberman of Language Log had a post which began by asserting that Abu Ghraib means ‘father of the raven’ (literally speaking, although the abu form in Arabic is so common and multivalent I’d be tempted to go with ‘Place of Ravens’ instead). Then on Monday he posted a correction, saying that Tim Buckwalter had told him it was rather the diminutive of ghariib ‘strange,’ while the dimunitive of ghuraab ‘crow, raven’ ought to be ghurayyib.

Now he has a further discussion of the matter, with more information on the formation of Arabic diminutives than you can shake a small stick at… and yet there’s still no resolution. Frankly, I find it hard to believe Iraqis don’t know whether Abu Ghraib is named after ravens, the west, or strangeness, assuming of course there is some sort of morphological differentiation in the diminutives. Does anybody know any Iraqis they can ask? The uncertainty is killing me, and perhaps Mark as well.


  1. Well observed! Similar thoughts had passed through my mind before I clicked through to something else.

  2. Michael Farris says

    I’ll probably see an Iraqi coworker Wednesday, I’ll ask her if I can remember (in other words, place no bets).
    But considering the diglossia of modern Arabic (and the various sources of modern Iraqi Arabic), I don’t find it difficult at all to believe that native speakers might have erroneous(sp?) or conflicting ideas about what things mean.

  3. I’d have thought that Iraqis would tend to be more bothered about what’s gone on inside Abu Ghraib over the years than what its name means…

  4. Yes, of course, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be interested in the latter, does it?

  5. Going Dotty in Kansas says

    The third edition of Wehr’s Dictionary of Modern Arabic gives the first definition for the infinitive “gharaba” as “to go away, depart, absent oneself, withdraw”, and further on lists “to expel from the homeland, banish, exile”. It would seem that this meaning accords with the prison. “Abu Ghraib” may thus mean “father/source of the departed/banished”. The word for “raven” is “ghuraab”. (“Ghraib” or “ghriib” is the adjectival or gerundive form of “gharaba” for which the dictionary gives the most common meaning as strange, bizarre, etc., though in context of a prison, the banishment or exile meaning seems to be the correct one.)

  6. Going Dotty in Kansas says

    (This would be so much easier if I could reproduce the Arabic calligraphy, but at the moment that ability is beyond me. There’s a definite distinction between the word for “banish” and “crow”.)

  7. Ingeborg S. Nordén says

    The “departing” meaning seems like a reasonable link between “west” (where the sunlight goes away) and “strange/foreign” (describing someone who’s obviously left his home country). Calling a prison the fatherland of exiles makes good sense too, as others have pointed out here.

  8. GDiK: Not sure what you mean. The words for ‘west’ (gharb), ‘crow, raven’ (ghuraab), and ‘strange, foreign’ (ghariib) are all listed under gharaba, or more accurately the root gh-r-b, but that says nothing about actual etymology — Arabic dictionaries cram everything that uses the same letters (consonants) under the same entry, with minor exceptions. It certainly gives no grounds for deciding on the meaning of Ghraib, which is a diminutive form of one of them… but which? Only an Iraqi can tell us (at least the currently understood meaning in the country, if not the original one).
    May I take this opportunity to complain about the third edition of Wehr, the one I own: it’s one of the crappiest paperbacks I’ve ever seen. I don’t use it all that much, and yet the spine has split so badly the book is in two pieces (plus the single pages that flake off from inside); I use the Oxford Russian-English Dictionary every day and have for years, and yet it soldiers on with no ill effects other than a little dog-earing. Bad, cheap Spoken Language Series! No biscuit!

  9. This is a little off-topic but I’ve been unable to find a good Arabic dictionary and would like some recommendations. I can read Arabic script but very slowly and require very clear printing. I also require full vowel/shadda/sukun pointing, gender and plurals indicated and, preferably, semitic root. With most of the dictionaries I’ve tried to use, I’ve had trouble with either poor printing or pinning down the correct form since the Arabic and English parts do not line up adequately.

  10. From the last (for today) comment on this thread I’ve learned about interesting publishing house which might have good dictionaries; try it:

  11. Michael Farris says

    I did remember to ask my Iraqi colleague (though she was in a hurry somewhere and didn’t have time for that much of a discussion).
    She said it meant “ojciec obcych” (father of strangers, as she pointed out, not a very good father) but then added “chyba” (probably). Nonetheless her first reaction to chraib was very definitely that it menat ‘obcy’ (foreigner, stranger).

  12. Actually, the name goes with the town/district and the prison was then named such because of the location. This discounts any explanations of the meaning that draw on the identification with a prison. The place shifts around some on maps too, one time placed over halfway on the road to Fallujah but usually near the old Saddam Hussein Int’l Airport. So it’s west of Baghdad. Variant spellings on maps: “Abu Ghurayb” (5x), “Abu Ghuraib,” “Abu Ghareib,” “Abu Gharaib” and “Abu Ghrab.” Obviously, the “ay,” “ai,” “ey” and “ei” are just equivalent transliterations into the Latin alphabet of the Arabic original spelling. “Abu Ghraib” really seems to be rather a western variant. I wish I could locate an Arabic-language map (with full spelling of names, i.e., with vowels and everything), that would solve this issue. Oh well.

  13. Michael: Thanks! Unless and until I hear otherwise, I’m taking it as being derived from ghariib ‘strange.’

  14. I’m just thinking of something: if the “Ghurayb” word were a noun, shouldn’t there be an article, in other words shouldn’t the place name be “Abu al-Ghurayb”? This would seem to support “Ghurayb” being an adjective. Unless, of course, “Ghurayb” is a proper name originally too. Heck, the place could’ve been named after a famous guy popularly called “Abu Ghurayb” or “Father of Ghurayb,” the way people are still commonly nick-named in relation to their 1st-born son (e.g., I am “Abu Anton”). The standard Wehr dictionary doesn’t list “ghurayb” of course. I have come across the family name “Ghurayb” and “Ghrayb” in the Arab world.

  15. I take back my earlier “‘Abu Ghraib’ really seems to be rather a western variant.” remark: I just saw a photo of a road sign in Iraq with “Abu Ghraib” and the Arabic version “Abuu Ghr?y?b” (no short vowels, of course).

  16. I’m thinking Abu is, ‘Ab’ – Spirit, and ‘bu’ – body; and ‘Ghraib’, you say, means ‘Raven’; then,
    Abu Ghraib is ‘Spirit-Body of the Raven’; the Raven being a symbol of Death, Darkness, Night.

    It should be abandoned and burned for purification;
    plant flowers over it.

  17. Nicholas Wright says

    It means Western Fatherland. Eastern Arabs, meaning east of Baghdad (and sometimes Baghdad), do not have a sense of West vs. East. They only have a sense of Easternness. It would be like asking for the etymology/origin, instead of the definition/translation to them.

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