My wife and I saw the enjoyable proto-noir movie Pépé le Moko the other night; to get the obvious question out of the way, moko is, as that Wikipedia article says (perhaps too prominently), “slang for a man from Toulon, derived from the Occitan amb aquò (‘with that’), a term which punctuates sentences in Provence and which, in Toulon, is pronounced em’oquò.” (Y provided the same etymology here in 2014). The movie is set in French-occupied Algiers in the 1930s, and specifically in the famed Casbah; of course, I wondered about the etymology of that word (which the OED insists on spelling kasbah), and it turns out (per Wiktionary) that it’s from Arabic قَصَبَة‎ (qaṣaba), a singulative derived from قَصَب‎ (qaṣab, ‘stalk’), itself a back-formation from قَصَّاب‎ (qaṣṣāb, ‘butcher’), borrowed from Aramaic קצבא‎ / ܩܰܨܳܒܳܐ‎ (qaṣṣābā), and a doublet of indigenous Arabic قَضَبَ‎ (qaḍaba, ‘to cut off, to trim’). Messy stuff!

Also, at one point at the start of the movie, when a local cop is trying to explain to a high-handed visitor from Paris why they haven’t been able to collar Pépé despite knowing where he lives, there’s a montage of the winding streets and arched alleys of the Casbah (doused with plenty of exoticism — the movie should be avoided by those with tender sensitivities about colonialism and orientalism) in which the narrator mentions odd names like rue de l’Impuissance, r. de la Ville de Soum Soum, r. de l’Hôtel du Miel, and r. de l’Homme à la Perle; naturally, I was curious as to whether these piquant names really existed, and googling turned up this wonderful (if exasperatingly coded — you can’t copy text) webpage about the traditional street names of the city (sadly replaced by French officialdom), and it turns out all four names are genuine: see r. de l’Aigle, r. d’Ammon, impasse El-Azel, and r. de la Grenade respectively. How I love old street names! See my posts on Salonica and Vilnius; I welcome such resources for other cities (I have a two-volume book on Paris streets).


  1. J.W. Brewer says

    You are burying the lede about the most significant ultimate cultural impact of the film from an American POV. Quoth wiki: “The film was remade in America in 1938 as Algiers, starring Hedy Lamarr and Charles Boyer, and again in 1948 as Casbah, a musical starring Tony Martin, Märta Torén, Yvonne de Carlo, and Peter Lorre. The title character’s French accent and womanizing, as portrayed by Charles Boyer in the 1938 remake, inspired the name and comic premise of the Looney Tunes cartoon character, Pepé Le Pew, introduced in 1945.”

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    Pépé le Moko is brill. The French do great gangster movies.

    I knew what moko meant, but didn’t know the etymology. As I’ve said before, LH is educational. (Perhaps I may be able to claim it on expenses against tax.)

  3. Dmitry Pruss says

    You can do a screen capture and open the image in Google drive as a Google document. It will OCR the image for you, giving back the elusive text.

  4. George Grady says

    There’s an add-on for Firefox (and there may be similar things for other browsers) called “Absolute Enable Right Click & Copy” that, when turned on, will enable you to right-click on pages that disable that, and let you copy and paste on pages that disable that. It works on the linked page.

  5. In Firefox you can click on the “Reader View” button, or choose it from the menu, which will present at least the list of streets in a copyable manner. Or, save the page as html, take out the last three attributes (the ones with “return false”) in the body tag near the top, and then open the edited file as usual.

  6. I’ve read that the Arabic word means ‘common reed’ (Phragmites australis), a common material in building and insulation in North Africa.

  7. Qṣǝb is indeed “reeds” in Algerian Arabic (the singular is qǝṣba). But I’ve never understood the connection between them, if any. Reeds are for building garden huts; they’re hardly what you associate with Casbahs, whose buildings are of stone. If the “butcher” etymology is correct (I wonder), perhaps the idea was something like “section” (of a town).

  8. Are reeds used for straw-and-mud construction? Also, what’s the difference (in the Maghreb) between a qṣer / “ksar” and a qaṣabah / “casbah”?

  9. David L. Gold says

    @ Y and Lameen

    The Arabic words meaning ‘butcher’ and ‘reed’ in those etymologies in Wikipedia and elsewhere are distractions.

    The relevant form is the Arabic root ق ص ب‎ ‘cut off’, that is, ‘enclose’.

    A casbah is a citadel, a walled-off area, an enclosure (en-closed), an area cut or closed off from whatever may surround it.

    Arabic قصاب ‘butcher’ (= ‘cutter [of meat]’) is derived from the same root but it is irrelevant to the etymology of the Arabic for ‘casbah’ (قَـصَـبَـة‎).

    Y and others who know Hebrew will recognize the Hebrew root cognate with the Arabic one, namely, קצב , whence, among other words, the Hebrew for ‘butcher’ (קצב).

  10. David G.: I think that’s what Lameen implied; in any case, since he’s the resident North Africanist/Arabist, and a professional historical linguist, I would like to know his considered opinion.

  11. قَصَّاب‎ (qaṣṣāb, ‘butcher’)


  12. The Wiktionary claim is that Arabic qṣb is a denominal borrowing from Aramaic, not a cognate. There’s nothing about the sound correspondences to suggest that – the Aramaic cognate of qḍb should if anything be qʕb; if any borrowing were to be involved, it would have to be from Hebrew or from Canaanite more broadly (and, indeed, CAL appeals to Hebrew to explain the Aramaic word!). But the rarity of the verb qaṣaba, in contrast to the high frequency of the nouns qaṣab and qaṣṣāb, does somewhat suggest a backformation; and the pairing of qaṣaba “cut up meat, cut” with qaḍaba curiously parallels that of qaṣab “reeds” with qaḍīb “rod”. I suspect this is one of the many cases where a focus on well-attested written languages is obscuring a bigger picture of variation and inter-regional borrowing in the pre-Islamic linguistic landscape of Arabia.

  13. what’s the difference (in the Maghreb) between a qṣer / “ksar” and a qaṣabah / “casbah”?

    I’m no architect, but in my experience, ksars are made of mud brick and casbahs of stone. But the difference might simply be geographical – Sahara vs. coast.

    Incidentally, if qaṣabah = “section”, then language-internally qaṣr can readily be interpreted as “paring, trimming”. Of course it really seems to come from Latin castrum, but that itself is apparently from PIE *ḱes- “cut” …

  14. PlasticPaddy says

    In Spanish the difference between alcázar and alcazaba (if there really is one) seems to be that the alcázar is viewed more as a (fortified) princely residence, found more usually in the North, and the alcazaba is viewed more as a (fortified) keep with permanent garrison, found more usually in the South.

  15. Looking at the English WP page for Kasbah, I see a discussion of the Arabian qasaba (Yemen and just north of it), a tower, usually built of stone. Could the root qṣb refer somehow to a pile of small (“divided”?) stones?
    The South Arabian dictionaries I looked at offer no help. The semantic range of qṣb in all of them looks so close to Arabic that I wonder if they all borrowed the root recently.
    In any case, the Maghreb might not necessarily be the best place to look for the ultimate etymology of the word.

  16.  Could the root qṣb refer somehow to a pile of small (“divided”?) stones?

    I have to be brief because I am using voice recognition and one index finger for this, not typing, because of shoulder surgery. Apologies for incompleteness and unclarity and lack of formatting.

    For the derivations of words for “fortress, stronghold” from words for “to cut, separate off” (noted by David L. Gold above), Latin castrum beside castrare “to prune, trim, lop off, geld” is a good example as Lameen indicates. See the Ernout-Meillet on castrum at the top of the 2nd column on page 104 here:

    However, other approaches to the etymology have been taken. We can look at the other meanings of the noun qaṣaba “reed, any jointed plant stalk, tube, water channel, well shaft, middle of town, rod (unit of length), etc.” to see how they hang together. (Just to be precise, the classical form of this word is qaṣaba, the singulative of qaṣab “reeds, tubes, water channels, etc.”. Later forms like casbah in the European languages reflect colloquial Arabic forms with syncope—compare Spanish alcazaba “Moorish fortress in a city” from the unsycopated form).

    Lane (following the medieval Arab lexicographers he drew upon) lays out an implicit possible sense development of qaṣaba from “section of a jointed plant” “tube” “hollow bone, bone with marrow” “water channel” “well-shaft” to “center of town” to “fortified castle” (such as in the middle of a qasr? or a tower in ancient Arabia having a central ventilation shaft? or a wind-tower in association with a qanat water channel system?) in his entry for the word here:

    Another web version here (click on قَصَبَةٌ I hope):

    (“Tropical”, represented by the obelus/dagger, means “metaphorical” in Lane.)

    I don’t know whether this sense development implicit in Lane will hold up under closer scrutiny. Also worth observing is the word quṣb “gut, middle of the body” from the Arabic root.

  17. If the first qasabahs were isolated towers, that would argue against the “separated” etymology. I’d like to know if the ‘hollow tube’ and ‘separate’ words are accidental homonyms, or if there’s ultimately some semantic connection between them, and if it might help clarify the origin of the “tower” sense.

    Add: I also see that qaṣaba is also used in the sense of ‘central street’, similar to English “artery”. Perhaps this, not the citadel, is the origin of the common sense of Casbah?

  18. I think that’s the etymology I used to have in mind.

  19. How about something like this, then: qaṣaba ‘cut’ and hence ‘cane’, ‘branch’, i.e. those which are cut (cf. Hebrew qāṣīr ‘harvest’); does that work in Arabic morphology? Hence, a hollow tube (including ‘trachea’), hence 1. main artery of a city, and hence commercial district, and 2. cylindrical tower, and hence various defensive structures.

  20. They don’t name them like they used to. However, yesterday while out exploring on my bicycle, I was pleased to come across Boundless Shade Terrace and Infinite Rings Drive amidst the usual pseudo-rustic and Olde England madlibs common in newer developments in the Maryland/Virginia area. I think Boundless Shade is aspirational at this point but could become a true description.

  21. Owlmirror says

    r. de la Ville de Soum Soum

    … can you tell me how to get to …

    I was struck by a sudden curiosity as to why “Sesame Street”, anyway. Looks like it was pretty ad hoc: Someone came up with it, and staff were warned that if no-one came up with anything better, they were sticking with it.

    In early spring of 1969, the press conference announcing the show neared and producers had still not made a decision. “We were just frantic for a title,” Joan Ganz Cooney remembers. “Our press and publicity people were going nuts. How were they going to promote a show that had no name?”

    Pressure was put on the production staff and Workshop employees to come up ideas for names—and hundreds of titles were suggested. Potential names included The Video Classroom and 1-2-3 Avenue B. “Everything from the mundane Fun Street,” Joan would later recall. 1-2-3 Avenue B was seriously considered and worked well with the show’s set design, which resembled an urban, inner city neighborhood complete with a corner store, subway station and brownstone stoop. It also made reference to the show’s educational goals. However, the name was eventually rejected for fear that the show’s title would not appeal to viewers outside of New York City.

    The name Sesame Street is credited to Virginia Schone, a writer for the show. Almost everyone on the staff disliked the name. There was concern that young children would have trouble pronouncing it. But time was running out and the show needed a name. Finally, Executive Producer Dave Connell put out a memo to the staff saying, “If nobody comes up with a better idea, as of Monday we were going to call it Sesame Street.” As Joan put it, “We went with it because it was the least bad title.”

  22. Rodger C says

    I’d always assumed that Sesame Street alluded to Aladdin’s “Open sesame!”, i.e. that it was a show that would open vistas to children. (This doesn’t contradict the above account.) Now I want to know what “Open sesame!” is in the original.

  23. David Marjanović says

    The ya part confirms that it’s “Open, sesame!” – he’s talking to the sesame. That’s how the German version has it: Sesam, öffne dich with a 2nd-person reflexive pronoun.

    Edit: and the French (Sésame, ouvre-toi), and Wikipedia knows all about it.

  24. David Marjanović says

    I clicked on that link and promptly laughed at my own joke. Oh dear…

  25. David L. Gold says

    Federico Corriente deals with the words in question (and more) in his Dictionary of Arabic and Allied Loanwords: Spanish, Portuguese, Catalan, Galician and Kindred Dialects.

    You can search for the Spanish word casbá here

    and then follow the cross-references by scrolling.

    In light of what I believe to be his masterly treatment, I withdraw everything I have said about the words.

  26. That’s a good reference to have, especially in this case, since my usual authorities, the dictionaries of Corominas and of Gómez da Silva, don’t list this word. However, although Corriente indeed carefully traces the various pathways of the word from Arabic to several Iberian languages, he does not attempt an etymology of the Arabic.

    Corriente also writes, “The meaning ‘bugel for fringes, etc.’ in C[atalan], with the spellings alcaçaba and alguecebra, reflects a Neo-Ar. metonymy, recorded by the dictionaries.” Is “bugel” a typo? I don’t understand it.

    I like Corriente’s appendix dedicated to “False Arabic loans”. These are words, mostly very Arabic-looking, which have been falsely etymologized at some point or another as Arabic.

  27. Is “bugel” a typo? I don’t understand it.

    This is evidently a typo for bugle, that is, a long, tubular bead, often very thin and made of glass:

    To illustrate, Aquaria (in red) wears a bugle fringe over her bust here:

    You can hear her shake and shimmy it at the very beginning. The word bugle is well known in the drag community.

  28. It turns out there are three different bugles:

    1) Any of numerous herbaceous plants of the Old World genus Ajuga (family Lamiaceae) [< Anglo-Norman bugyl, Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French bugle < post-classical Latin bugula, perhaps an alteration of post-classical Latin bugillo]

    2) Originally: a simple wind instrument made from the horn of a wild ox and used for signalling in battle or during hunting. In later use esp.: a simple brass instrument resembling a small trumpet, typically having no valves or keys and often used for military signalling [< Anglo-Norman and Middle French bugle buffalo, wild ox, drinking horn, young ox, heifer, hunting horn < classical Latin būculus < bōs ox (see bovine adj.) + -culus -culus]

    3) A tube-shaped bead made of glass or plastic, used to make jewellery or to ornament clothing [Origin uncertain. Perhaps an extended sense of bugle n.2 (compare bugle n.2 3), with allusion to the tubular shape of this kind of bead]

    For the third, they add “A connection with either post-classical Latin bugulus, denoting a kind of ornament worn in women’s hair (1388 in an apparently isolated attestation) or Middle Dutch bogel, buegel ring, hoop (see boul n.) has been suggested, but neither seem convincing on semantic grounds.” All three were updated in 2017.

  29. Gerald Durrell, The Whispering Land:

    ‘He is very much what you call a stupid buggler,’ said Josefina. And then, struck by a thought, ‘Gerry, tell me what does this word buggler mean? I look up in dictionary and all I find is man who play a buggle. This is not insulting, no?’

  30. On the next page in Corriente is alcacuz~alcocuz ‘a kind of bugloss’. That referring to any of several plants in the borage family, and through French and Latin < Greek βούγλωσσον ‘ox tongue’, thus cousin to bugle (the musical instrument).

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