In an earlier thread, Xerîb linked to a great Twitter thread by Ahmad Al-Jallad (Epigraphist | Philologist | Historian of Language || Ancient Near East and Pre-Islamic Arabia) about the origin of the word Saracen; I’m reposting his preferred etymology here, but you can read the alternatives at the link (I have added italics for clarity and expanded an annoying abbreviation):

Let’s consider another etymology, perhaps one of the most popular – a connection with the Arabic root ś-r-q (شرق) ‘east’. Many have assumed a connection with the adjective śarqiyy ‘eastern’. But east of what?
Littmann translated Safaitic verb ʾśrq, the c-stem of the ‘east’ root, as ‘to migrate into the desert’, based on Bedouin usage. A. Musil recorded that the early 20th c. Bedouin used šarrag (< šarraqa) to mean a migration to the desert no matter the direction.
Indeed, we have this exact usage in Safaitic, where for example we find expressions like ʾaśraqa yamanata ‘he migrated southward to the desert’. Macdonald ingeniously connects this usage to the rise of the term ‘Saracen’.
In the 2nd c. CE, the Romans had established the Province of Arabia. At this moment, the meaning of the term ‘Arab’ changed for outside writers. It could referred to the citizens of this Roman province. From this confusion emerged a new term for the nomads.
Perhaps one used by the Nabataeans themselves: ‘śaraq-ers’, that is ‘those who go (or live) in the desert’. A similar term is still used to refer to nomads in Iraqi Arabic (and elsewhere): šrūgi (< šurūqī).
Macdonald understood the Greek term to derive from an agentive formation, śarrāq– ‘desert migrator’. While certainly plausible, I might suggest another possibility. The term śarq or śarāq could have been the generic name for the desert itself in these ancient dialects.
This would mean the Greek Sarakēnoí derives from the geographic name śar(a)q + the suffix ēnos. This also agrees with the verb ʾaśraqa where the Form IV can be used to signify motion towards a place. It would [therefore] be an exonym; it’s not attested as a term of self-designation.
In the following centuries, Sarakēnoí (= Saracen) became the standard term for Arabians beyond the Roman realm and nomads within it, a label covering a multitude of peoples and groups, who lived hundreds of kilometers apart and spoke different languages.
The Arab Conquests, coming from the śaraq (the desert), created a lasting connection with Islam. By the Middle Ages, Saracens could be Turkic warriors, Damascene traders, and nomads from the Sinai. It belongs to a family of vague exonyms like ‘moor’, ‘mohammedan’, and even ‘turk’

Makes sense to me. Thanks, Xerîb!


  1. Stu Clayton says

    It could referred to the citizens of this Roman province.

    Something’s slightly wrong there.

  2. I presume “have” should be inserted. It’s a tweet, after all, not a monograph. (Not that monographs are free of errors these days.)

  3. Stu Clayton says

    I see now you’ve pieced it together. I don’t know how Twitter works, at first I saw nothing like the passage you quoted.

    The annoying abbreviation is “thr4”.

  4. Yes it is. Too cutesy even for Tweety Bird.

  5. I am glad you found Ahmad’s thread interesting, Hat! I am always learning new and delightful things from Ahmad’s Twitter threads, which he deftly manages to divide into lucid, insightful 280-character chunks that satisfy Twitter’s rigid character count restrictions (with the help of an occasional abbreviation).

  6. Tom Holland suggested that “Saracen” derived from “shirkat”, a partnership, and speculates that it’s the equivalent to Latin “foederati”, suggesting that it derives from the use of desert nomad troops as allies of Roman regulars.
    ETA: I see someone made this point in the replies.

  7. David Marjanović says


    If that’s got a k instead of a q, we’d expect χ in Greek instead of κ.

  8. David: Even if borrowed into Byzantine Greek?

  9. David Marjanović says

    When is the word first attested? The equivalence held pretty long, but presumably it was gone before the Western Roman Empire ended.

  10. John Cowan says

    Not if it came in through Egyptian Greek, where (IIRC) the aspirated stops merged with the plain stops instead of becoming fricatives. Saihidic Coptic’s only surviving fricatives were /f/, /s/, /ʃ/, /h/, and /w ~ β ~ v/. (Coptic isn’t big on voicing anyhow: δ and ζ were written, but were probably mostly a marker of Greek loanwords.)

  11. David Eddyshaw says

    Coptic seems to have distinguished glottalised from plain voiceless stops, and to have had no voiced stops (at least in native vocabulary) except as allophones of the glottalised series after nasals. The letter beta represented a fricative or approximant, not a stop.

    Bohairic marks the distinction by using the Greek symbols for aspirated stops to write the non-glottalised stops. Sahidic almost certainly possessed both series too: it’s just that the spelling convention for differentiating them wasn’t used.

    It’s a bit difficult to square this usage with the usual timetable for the change within Greek itself of aspirated voiceless stops to fricatives; perhaps it goes back to Old Coptic (i.e. the first pre-Christian attempts to write Egyptian in Greek letters.)

    There’s a similar difficulty with Origen’s Hebrew transcriptions, which consistently show Greek tau and kappa for teth and qoph, while using theta, chi and phi for Hebrew tav, kaph and peh. (Origen’s system does not mark the bgadkpat phenomenon at all; it did not exist in Hebrew before people started pronouncing Hebrew as Aramaic.) Pretty certainly Origen was drawing on a traditional transcription system which would surely not have worked for the Greek of his own day. The LXX transcribes Hebrew like that; Jerome presumably just followed Greek usage.

  12. John Cowan says

    It’s traditional to write foreign words with /t/ or /k/ using teth and qoph, to the point where these are the normal representations of these phonemes in Yiddish, and tav and kaph appear only in Hebrew loanwords (which are spelled in Yiddish exactly as they are spelled in Hebrew). So perhaps the convention equating qoph/teth with kappa/tau is old enough that it was used in both directions in Origen’s time: Hebrew loanwords in Greek and Greek loanwords in Hebrew.

  13. David Eddyshaw says

    אפיקורוס springs to mind straight away, with qoph for Greek kappa. Interestingly, Ethiopic, which actually has a glottalised p as well as the industry-standard Semitic glottalised (or pharyngealised if you’re an Arab) t and k, uses its glottalised p for Greek pi (and hardly uses non-glottalised p at all.)

  14. John Cowan says
  15. “When is the word first attested? The equivalence held pretty long, but presumably it was gone before the Western Roman Empire ended.”

    According to the thread, “Ptolemy (2nd c. CE) mentions a place ‘beside’ Egypt, extending from Pharan to Judaea (Geography V.17.3) called Sarakēnḕ, which is inhabited by a tribe he calls the Sarakēnoí”.

    Pharan in Arab/Muslim tradition is the Hejaz. In the Bible, Hagar and Ishmael lived in the Desert of Pharan around Beersheba. So Sarakene sounds like it’s the north of modern Jordan, between the Hejaz and Judaea, or ancient Nabataea.

  16. David Marjanović says

    IIRC, mid-2nd c. is about the age of the first FILIPPVS on a Roman graffito. In Pompei there’s a PILIPPHVS.

  17. I’m reading Bryusov’s fundamentally silly but enjoyable 1907 novel Огненный ангел (The Fiery Angel), and in a description of the hero Ruprecht’s visit to a witches’ sabbath (imitating Merezhkovsky?) I just got to this:

    Она крепко держала меня за руку и льнула ко мне, сообщила, что на ночных собраниях зовут ее Сарраской [71], и уговаривала: “Пойдем плясать”

    She [a young witch] held me by the arm and pressed herself to me, telling me that at the nighttime gatherings she was called “Sarrasca [71],” and said “Let’s dance”

    The footnote says:

    Сарацинка, т. е. арабка (от арабск. šarqin — восточные, т. е. арабы).

    Saratsinka [‘female Saracen’], i.e., Arab woman (from Arab. šarqin ‘easterners,’ i.e. Arabs).


  18. AJP Crown says

    Saracens Women (no apostrophe).

  19. Interesting!

    Saracens Women (/ˈsærəsənz/) is a women’s rugby union club based in Hendon, London, England. They were founded in 1989 and play in the Premier 15s. They are the current reigning Premier 15s champions. They are also the women’s team of Saracens Amateurs, who themselves are affiliated to English Premiership team, Saracens.


    Saracens were founded in 1876 by the Old Boys of the Philological School in Marylebone, London (later to become St Marylebone Grammar School). The club’s name is said to come from the “endurance, enthusiasm and perceived invincibility of Saladin’s desert warriors of the 12th century”. The fact that their local rivals were called the Crusaders may also have been a factor. The Crescent and Star appearing in the club’s emblem are reminiscent of those appearing on the flag of the Ottoman Empire.

  20. AJP Crown says

    Yes, SMGS (“formerly The Philological School, Est. 1792,” it said in black & gold by the gates) – Ex Animo Tamquam Deo* was its motto, invented cleverly (tamquam) in the 1940s by Ken Crooke, the asst. head – is one of several schools I attended in the ’60s. It was closed by order of Wilson’s Labour Gov. who thought it wasn’t fair that some state school pupils were smarter than others but left the public (private) schools untouched so Boris & Co. could still go to Eton. So I knew what philology was when I was eleven and never looked back. Saracens (the men’s) is the best rugby team in England at the mo but has been demoted to a lower league for something or other to do with paying its players too much money.

    *”From the heart, as from God”
    **”If it’s the last thing I do, I’m going to destroy every fucking grammar school in England. And Wales and Northern Ireland.” – Tony Crosland, Labour’s Education Sec. (to his wife, in her bio. of him). He had been privately educated at Highgate School .

  21. Wilson’s Labour Gov. who thought it wasn’t fair that some state school pupils were smarter than others

    Wilson himself having benefited from going to a Grammar school. (As did Corbyn.) Did it have anything to do with being ‘smarter’?

    I went to a Grammar school, one of the last hold-outs in London. There were plenty of my peers smarter than me, but they didn’t have the academic mindset. They ‘failed’ miserably (by Grammar school standards). They would have benefited much more by going to what the Germans call a Technical school.

    ‘Academic mindset’ is Tory code for middle-class; the 13 years of Tory mis-rule had funded Grammar schools and neglected Secondary Moderns. That’s what Wilson/Crossland were trying to re-balance. That and the preposterous ’11-plus’ exam that determined everybody’s life chances from a miserable 2 hours in a school hall.

    Of course underfunding education [Margaret Thatcher, Betsy deVos] gives bad outcomes whatever the system. In Britain since Thatcher was Education Secretary, it’s been more or less impossible to get into politics from a state-funded education.

    [Crossland] had been privately educated at Highgate School .

    Yeah kinda like a billionaire funding himself for a tilt at President in order to overturn the influence of money on politics.

  22. AJP Crown says

    I agree the 11+ exam was no way to run any system. It was the Greater London Council that abolished the school btw, not Wislon himself.

    Sorry about the rant, it must have been the Friday night wine…And now back to Saracen.

  23. J.W. Brewer says

    SMGS has a rather interesting set of Old Boys: Jerome K. Jerome AND Adam Ant!

  24. I had some Friday night wine myself! Cheap stuff, but it did the trick. I’d like to see Jerome K. Jerome and Adam Ant onstage together.

  25. John Cowan says

    overturn the influence of money on politics

    Overturn is certainly not le mot juste. Balance would be more like it.

    it’s been more or less impossible to get into politics from a state-funded education

    From a Quora answer (not mine) about the education of U.S. presidents:

    Private schools for the high school years would include Donald Trump, Barack Obama, George W. Bush, George H.W. Bush, John Kennedy, Franklin Roosevelt, and I don’t have a solid clue before that. Maybe Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, William Howard Taft, Warren Harding based on their affluent and education focused parents but I don’t know for sure.

    Public high school graduates: Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson, Dwight Eisenhower, Harry Truman, Herbert Hoover, [Calvin] Coolidge?

    Before that secondary education barely existed in the U.S.

  26. AJP Crown says

    Actually – I remember the name, because my brother-in-law was sent there – Calvin Coolidge went to St. Johnsbury Academy, NH (and then to Amherst), so he too was privately educated.

    Ant, then known as Goddard, was in the year below me and I remember him mostly from the art room but also because he said his mother cleaned house for Paul McCartney (Ringo too lived round the corner from the school, in Montagu Sq.) If you imagine that Brooklyn classroom scene by Woody Allen, in my class of about 30ish little boys were the current deputy governor of the Bank of England and the director Julien Temple (The Great Rock’n’Roll Swindle, The Filth and the Fury) as well as me and the usual dentists & accountants.

Speak Your Mind