In the Facebook Historical Linguistics & Etymology group, Gary Rawding asks:·

Kulthum… as in Um Kulthum (ام كلثوم) ??
Wikipedia gives ‘from elephant’ but no source.
I don’t find kulthum in Lane or Wehr. Maybe it is Persian or Turkish ? Can somebody help me ?

I’ve long been familiar with Umm Kulthum and had wondered about her name, so I read the thread eagerly. After some unsourced speculation (“Kulthum means cheek in Arabic. So a woman who is an ‘um Kulthum’ is a woman with a face that has a big fleshy cheek”), Nane Limon Dada wrote:

It is unlikely that the name Kulthum would be Arabic in origin because of its rare morphological stem and because it is untraceable to any Proto-Semitic root. Another meaning to add what the respondents suggested above is “elephant”. This is suggestive to a Indo-Iranian root as the animal fauna indicates a potential geographical candidate. However, I couldn’t locate any cognate in the comprehensive dictionary of Indo-Iranian languages on University of Chicago’s webpage. We find in a work, a modern onomistics miscellany some interesting suggestions, Sijill Asma al-Arab, v.4., p. 2245. The cognate is proposed as كلتوم “kultuum” too hence invoking an idea for a historical defricitization in pre-classical-Arabic as the name goes back to one of the poets of the Pre-Islamic poetry that was listed in the Seven Hanged Poems, Amr Ibn Kulthum. If so, the transition must have been realized earlier. In the Sijill, كلتوم گلبهار (kultum gholbahar) is proposed as an attestation of its example. However the كلتوم is not analyzed, at all. This may inspire for another consideration for a compound phrase and a lexical search within the Indo-Iranian background, though. Also, it is proposed in line with zoological “elephant” association that the meaning can be cognate with a Latin root كلريوس (Cellarius?) well-known an “lizard”. [Google Books link] The feminine beauty in the Classical Arabic was represented through the natural fauna as well as flora like the premature born (lamb) Khadija etc. The selectivity of the motifs could be explained in their perception of the world consistently and in an ideal beauty given the semiotics of the meaning, that of course presupposes an intertextual reading effort. Therefore, the modern audience should avoid the modern metaphorical esthetization of femininity for its interpretation not to be misled.

I don’t have enough background to know how much sense any of that makes, and I welcome the thoughts of the assembled Hatters.

Unrelated except that it involves Egypt, Slavo/bulbul has alerted me to “Early alphabetic writing in the ancient Near East: the ‘missing link’ from Tel Lachish,” by Felix Höflmayer, Haggai Misgav, Lyndelle Webster, and Katharina Streit. Looks intriguing.


  1. PlasticPaddy says

    For Khartoum, Wiktionary has:
    Possibly from Arabic خُرْطُوم‎ (ḵurṭūm, “elephant trunk”), but more likely from Arabic قُرْطُم‎ (qurṭum, “safflower”).
    So there is your elephant. Why not go with the safflower (or the guy from Khartoum), as long as you are changing r to l?

  2. The earliest Arabic dictionary, Kitab al-Ayn (before 786 AD), gives (as best I can translate offhand – I may have misunderstood some bits, it’s pretty archaic):

    A mukalṯam woman is one with cheeks, beautiful in the roundness of the face, more so in the smoothness of the cheek, who has not imposed upon it the frowning of ugliness. The verbal noun is kalṯamah. And al-kulṯūm is the elephant.

    Less poetic but clearer is the definition of Lisan al-Arab:

    Al-kulṯūm is the elephant, which is the zandabīl [an even more obscure synonym], and al-kulṯūm is the one with fleshy cheeks and face. And a mukalṯam slave-woman is [insert unattributed quote from Kitab al-Ayn] [etc….]

    So basically, an elephant could be called “fat-face”. (Or a fat-faced person an elephant; who knows?)

    If the “elephant” meaning is original, then a foreign source would certainly be suggested – maybe African. But renaming animals using sobriquets is pretty common practice, and if “fat-face” is the original meaning, it would be perfectly reasonable to hunt for a Semitic source. Every Semitic language has a fair number of quadriliteral roots; they can’t all be dismissed as loans, especially not ones with a consonant as rare as ṯ.

  3. John Emerson says

    Decades ago I had an Israeli-American friend who was in awe of Um Kulthum, and he told me that there are many different romanizations of her name. She’s popular throughout the Arab world and I suspect that her name is transcribed in the local languages. with no attempt to conform to “Classical Arabic”.

  4. Lameen: Thanks, that’s probably as definitive as we’re going to get.

  5. David Marjanović says

    The verbal noun is kalṯamah. And al-kulṯūm is the elephant.

    Every root should have a verbal noun and an elephant.

    (Of course, the story goes, it does in Sanskrit.)

  6. OK, turns out that Arabic also has a root kṯm, which is clearly related (quadriliterals often seem to be derived from triliterals by adding a sonorant):

    of a milk-skin: full
    of a person: big-bellied

    kaṯama (a squash etc.): to put it in one’s mouth and break it

    So that suggests fat-face to elephant, rather than vice versa.

  7. David Marjanović says

    by adding a sonorant

    In the middle? Is there an infixing process lurking under the quadriliterals?

  8. Trond Engen says

    Or the regularization of the system eliminated one consonant, and the one that had to go was the most, well, liquid element.

  9. It’s far from productive, but there are a number of alternations of this kind: jāmid “solid” vs. julmūd “boulder”, ʕiqd “necklace” vs. ʕunqūd “cluster”… It looks rather like infixation of a liquid coda (usually n).

  10. Steingass (Persian-English Dictionary, 1892) has this as the entry for كلثوم:

    A [for Arabic] كلثوم Full of flesh about the face and cheeks; an elephant; the silken pennant at the top of a standard; ummu kulsum [this format won’t accept the diacritics], A surname of Muhammad’s daughter Fatimah.

    I can’t find any other entries that might shed more light, such as کلتوم .

  11. CuConnacht says

    I have never heard that Umm Kulthum was a surname of Fatimah. Wikipedia and other sources say that she was Fatimah’s sister, third daughter of Muhammad and Khadijah.

  12. Here’s the Steingass entry, so those interested can see the diacritics.

  13. Hebrew has ḥarṭōm ‘snout’, probably related to ḥoṭem ‘nose’. Klein says they have Arabic cognates, “ḫaṭm (=nose, snout), whence ḫurtūm (=proboscis, trunk of an animal)”. I haven’t confirmed these elsewhere. Are they related to the ‘elephant’ word?

    The Biblical ḥarṭom ‘soothsayer’ is from Egyptian ḥry-tp, and is unrelated.

    (It feels very wrong to try to figure out whether the greatest and most revered singer of modern Egypt is ‘elephant lady’, ‘plump lady’, or ‘snout lady’.)

  14. In reference to the alphabetic ostracon, I thought this was interesting, from the conclusion:

    >Furthermore, the new early alphabetic inscription dates to a period that also saw the earliest attested hieratic writing at Tel Lachish (Sweeney 2004: 1610–11), and when Lachish is mentioned for the first time in Egyptian sources during the reign of Amenhotep II (c. 1427–1401 BC)

    Giving the earliest known alphabetic item in the Levant significant Egyptian context.

  15. Yes, I thought that was very interesting indeed.

  16. Incidentally, regarding Egyptian loans into Hebrew, Noonan’s 2019 Non-Semitic Loanwords In The Hebrew Bible is available on the eBook/movie/etc. platform Hoopla, available for free through many public libraries in the US, including mine. In general their selection of scholarly books is limited and seemingly random, like what you’d find at the end of the day at a library sale. But I’m not complaining, and am grateful for what they have.

    P.S. I missed PlasticPaddy’s comment on ‘elephant trunk’ in the context of Khartoum.

  17. I just found Thy Name is Deer. Animal Names in Semitic Onomastics and Name-Giving Traditions: Evidence from Akkadian, Northwest Semitic, and Arabic, a 2017 dissertation by Hekmat Dirbas. His comments on Umm Kulṯūm parallel Lameen’s.

  18. A 334-page book on Semitic animal word onomastics that doesn’t mention the name of my daughter, Gazelle? Sigh.

  19. Ryan, perhaps ريم rīm (Rim/Reem) would do for a Gazelle. If this book does not have this name I am surprised…

    P.S. (thoguh i do not know if they meant exactly gazelle when giving the name – it denotes different animals)

  20. Sure it does, see the tables beginning on p. 236, and search under “gazelle” in the main text.

  21. P. 111: – ġazāl-
    p. 112: Ġazālīya
    p.116: Ġazāla
    You will forgive me not listing 30 other mentions.
    But I will try to copy from the table of different language reflexes of this word/name
    . *ġVzāl- “gazelle” (SED 2, No. 92)
    Akk. Ḫuzālum, OA Ḫu-za-lá (Bilgic and Bayram 1995 4: 4; 26: 6; 49: 2), OB Ḫu-zalum, fḪu-za-la-tum (IPNOBS 99; ARM 16/1 110), Uzālum, U-za-lum (Harris 1955 13: 5), MB Ḫu-za-li, Ḫu-za-lu4
    , U-za-li (gen.) (PKTN 86, 233), NA Ḫu-zalu, Ḫu-za-la, Ḫu-za-li (gen.) (PNA 484), N/LB Ḫu-za-lu (Nielsen 2015: 140;NBN 68a).Eb. Ġuzālu, Ḫu-za-lux(ARES 3 319).
    Amor.349 Ġazāla, fḪa-za-la (Streck 2000: §2.95, 5.22), Ġazālum, Ḫa-za-lum (ARM 22 160), A-za-lu-um, A-za-lum, Az-za-lum (CAAA, No. 574-76), Ġazālīya, A-sa-lija, A-za-la-ia, A-za-li-ia “Little gazelle” (CAAA, No. 516, 571, 573), Ġazālī, Ḫa-za-li “My gazelle” (or hypoc.) (OBTR 307: 2’).
    (N)WSC Ġazālu(m), Ḫa-za-lum, Ḫa-za-la, Ḫa-za-li, Ġazālâ, m+fḪa-za-la-a (PNA 469).
    Ug. (bt) Ḫzli, Ḫu-zi-la-a, Ḫa-zi-lu, Ġzly (PTU 28: 140; Watson 2007: 94).
    AAr. Saf. Ġzlt, Dad. Ġzln, Qat. Ġzl (f), Sab. Ġzylm (HIn 454f; POI 207).
    Ar. Ġazāl, Ġazāla (f), Ġuzayl, al-Ġuzayyil (CIK 2 274, 276; Ikmāl 7: 2), nick. Ġazāl, Ibn ‘ayn al-ġazāl, lit. “The son of the gazelle’s eye” (MAAM 232; Ikmāl 7: 22), Bed. Ġazāl, Ġazale (f), Ġzayyil (f) (Littmann 1921: 16; Hess 1912: 43), SG Ġazālāt (fem. pl.), Ġazālīyīn (pl.) (Beduinen 4 48a), CAO Ġazāla/e (f) is rather frequent, particularly in Syria (SAR 1, No. 44557, 45211; UAE, No.
    0114166), Ġazāl is found as FN and less as (m) PN, e.g. Ibrāhīm b. Ġazāl Ġazāl (SAR 1, No. 728, 4099, 17495).

  22. My daughter’s name is actually an Aramaic word for gazelle. It felt strange to spell it out on a blog, and I hadn’t realized there were other such words included. Since I’ve caused confusion I’ll go ahead and say she is named Tabitha. Thanks for setting me straight though I’m going to reopen it.

    Wow! 82 references to names meaning gazelle! No wonder he didn’t mention Tabitha. He provably felt the book was overcrowded with gazelles already.

    And in fact he does list Tabi-(at) and related forms in a chart of NW Semitic names. That’s the root, so I’ll take it. And later Tabita. Cripe! Should have known to search for gazelle and not the modern spelling of her name.

  23. That Dirbas dissertation is a great resource – thanks for the link!

    Much as I liked the idea of elephants being called “fat-face”, it’s clear that “chubby” comes closer to the right connotations – though in a way it’s impossible to translate a word like this from a culture where being fat was rare and prized to one as fat-phobic as the 21st century West.

  24. I wasn’t sure what name you meant, and then I saw you’d capitalized “Gazelle”…

  25. There’s a memorable discussion of Western vs. Middle Eastern attitudes toward body fat in Roald Dahl’s Madame Rosette, a sweet, heart-warming short story about sexual slavery.

  26. About Umm Kulthum the first question to be asked is maybe what the name feels and sound like to modern Arabic speakers, if there are any modern connotations and implications and if it is current/widespread enough.

    Because she’s a modern singer called so by modern people.

  27. Much as I liked the idea of elephants being called “fat-face”, it’s clear that “chubby” comes closer to the right connotations – though in a way it’s impossible to translate a word like this from a culture where being fat was rare and prized to one as fat-phobic as the 21st century West.

    Well, in Russia, “cow” is an insult (compare Maha) and “heifer” is a rather vulgar word (somewhat similar to “chick”) — though my friend really loved it when somoene at a biker festival asked her freind about her: “who is that hellish heifer standing next to you?”. And I absolutely can’t picture a surname like “rain” (Matar – a Levantine family name, I believe) in Russian context. I can’t even explain why it suprises me, but it does each time I come across a Matar who is not falling from the sky. We have any number of sunames like “Sparrow” etc., though.

    Maybe a literal translation with a footnote — so that the reader could get accustomed to the whole system — or a dissertation explaining it is not a bad idea.

    P.S. in this particlular case it is indeed chubby, I assume. Or not? I do not know what it is for native speakers.

  28. John Cowan says

    Speaking of which, Huehnergard has published a new paper, “The Legacy of Akkadian”, about the survival of Akkadian terms in many modern languages 2000 years after Akkadian ceased to be a living language. Who knew that semolina is < Italian < Latin < Greek < Aramaic < Akkadian samīdu ‘finely ground groats’? Certainly not I. And divan is < French < Ottoman Turkish < Arabic < Middle Persian < Old Persian *dipivahanum ‘document house’, of which dipi- is < Akkadian ṭuppu ‘writing, inscription’ < Sumerian dub.’

    “cow” is an insult

    In AmE cow ‘woman’ is likewise an insult < fat cow, but in BrE poor cow ‘woman’ is usually an expression of sympathy.

  29. @drasvi: There is nothing vulgar in English about using chick to describe a woman. Under the wrong circumstances, it could be disrespectful, but never vulgar. Biker chick is especially commonplace. Cow and heifer are gendered insults, but cow is pretty mild.

    For a British example of cow as a mild insult, in the Dr. Who episode “Blink,” the protagonist Sally Sparrow calls her friend (who is not present and who Sally has just learned she will never see again) a “lying cow” for lying to her husband about her age.

  30. Brett, maybe you’re using the word “vulgar” different than I would. Chick is not a word I would use under any circumstance. If by “vulgar” you mean “obscene” then evidently it’s not that, but it’s still not good, except under some very specific circumstances (like women referring to themselves with a particular image of carefree youth in mind.)

    As to cow being mild, I also disagree, strongly. It’s old-fashioned but deeply insulting.

  31. Chick is incredibly mild and frankly quite ubiquitous.

  32. East Coast / West Coast?

  33. Yes, by vulgar I meant a social marker. Maybe its reference to a certain functon of a chick. As for its vulgarity/offensiveness in the other sense, I can not be sure here. I usually read this word rather than hear and you can’t learn connotations and shades from books:( Or, in other words, I have no idea when and, improtantly how and which way I am going to offend (or please) a chick in question with the word.

    I think it is milder: “heifer” is still associated in urban Russian’s mind with that large animal stading in the middle of a field and saying mooooo:) Not too gentle.
    I heard numerous young women using it, including the hellish heifer in question. She would use a diminutive form. But she is a proponet of sexual objectification and she loves animals.

  34. I associate “chick” with stereotypical ’50s bikers and ’60s and ’70s hippies. By the 1980s it was still paraded by hedonist metal bands, and mocked as something low-class idiots would use in Dire Straits’ “Money for Nothing”, but after that it kind of faded out. At least that’s my impression. A lot of women hated the word long before it lost its popularity.

  35. Because she’s a modern singer called so by modern people.

    I suspect not one in a hundred of Umm Kulthum’s listeners knew the (man’s) name Kulthum meant “chubby”; I’m not entirely sure most of them even knew that Umm Kulthum had been the name of a daughter of the Prophet. But being a bit plump was certainly better appreciated in her time than in Egypt today. A lot has changed since her era, in the Arab world as in Europe or America.

  36. David Eddyshaw says

    In Niamey, I once came across a tourist brochure for the Republic of Niger, which, as part of the attractions of that country, described the beauty of Hausa women* in terms which would not appeal to feminist sentiment. It was clear from the epithets used that, to the author of said brochure, this beauty of Nigériennes was very much tied up with their being far from skinny.

    (This would be in the 1990s.)

    *It may have been a choice between that, and the hippopotamuses in the Niger river. The attractions of scrub savanna and Sahel are caviar to the general, and even to the aficionado, a little goes a long way.

  37. Niger, Mali, and Mauritania are the only countries I know of offhand where women still fatten themselves up (or, more problematically, fatten their daughters up) with the intention of increasing their beauty. Having a recent history of famine probably makes a difference to perceptions of ideal body size…

  38. In my idiolect “cow” for a woman is a general insult to her personality rather than her body shape.

  39. David Eddyshaw says

    And I absolutely can’t picture a surname like “rain” (Matar – a Levantine family name, I believe) in Russian context.

    This chap’s name


    means “Rain.”

    “Asaga”, which would be “Asaa” in Kusaal, will be his actual personal name: the local convention is to use these like surnames in English-speaking contexts, along with a baptismal name, for a Catholic like this fellow.)

    “Rain” would be very much an auspicious name in northern Ghana. Depending on tone, the name might conceivably mean “broom tree”, but although Nabit and Kusaal personal names can be based on pretty much any common noun in principle, that seems less likely.

  40. as part of the attractions of that country, described the beauty of Hausa women* in terms which would not appeal to feminist sentiment.

    Reminded me how I was about to attend an event in India in June or July – in other words in the week before the monsoon, exaclty the hottest (that is 50+ in some days). There is South India (and, say, Maldives) where it is 30 C. ion January, February, March, April and so on. It is affected by the ocean and fairly thermostatic even though almost equatorial.

    And there is the North that is an oven since March to July and a shower since July. Tourist normally come in December or January. It would be idiotic to take a plane to India, than travel from a air-conditioned room to an air-conditioned room for 3 weeks, and then take a plane back home without seeing India. So I started planning retreat to higher ground and simply looked at the map and found nearest mountains. And this is what WIkipedia said:

    Chintapalli is a very famous town in both the telugu speaking states Andhra Pradesh and Telangana.Every year lakhs of tourists from various parts of the country come here during winters. The temparature in this area falls down to almost minus 2 degrees some times. Tourists come here to enjoy the bone biteing cold winter nights and early morning snow fall. Sunlight is seen only after 10 a.m and the daytime sun lights are almost very short. It is an undescribable experience walking in the mornings.

    Enjoy the bone biteing cold !!!

    Very exciting for a Russian. Made me think about what Russians feel in Russian bath house – it is too about subjecting ourselves to extreme heat for while. (but some jump right into snow after this).

  41. Who knew that semolina is < Italian < Latin < Greek < Aramaic < Akkadian samīdu ‘finely ground groats’? Certainly not I.

    Apparently you missed this 2009 post.

  42. John Cowan says

    More like I forgot it. “Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot / But he’ll remember, with advantages / What feats he did that day.”

    In any case that page doesn’t go back to Assyrian, never mind Sumerian.

  43. The name Ribqā (now Rivka, i.e. Rebecca) may be from the root rbq, used with the meaning of fattening an animal, or else a feminine form (with metathesis) of bāqār ‘cattle’, i.e. ‘cow’.

  44. David Marjanović says

    a general insult to her personality

    blöde Kuh; I’ve also sighted stupid cow in English.

  45. Intent matters as much as the word. Corbyn got in hot watter for woman.

  46. January First-of-May says

    blöde Kuh

    Previously on LH.

  47. David Eddyshaw says

    From “Scoop”:

    Then turning again to Mrs Jackson with his most elaborate manner he [Corker] said, ‘Mrs Jackson, you misunderstand me. This is a matter of public importance. What do the women of Ishmaelia think of the proposal to introduce a force of international police?’

    Mrs Jackson took the question badly. ‘I will not stand for being called a woman in my own house,’ she said. ‘And I’ve never had the police here but once and that was when I called them myself for to take out a customer that went lunatic and hanged himself.’ And she swept wrathfully away to her office and her rocking-chair.

    ‘Staunchly anti-interventionist,’ said Corker.

  48. There was a time when referring to someone as a woman implied that she was not a lady.

  49. As here.

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