I recently ran across a Russian word unknown to me, мухояр [mukhoyár], an obsolete term for a kind of cotton fabric mixed with silk or wool. It looks like a purely Slavic word, perhaps having something to do with муха [mukha] ‘fly’—imagine my surprise when I looked up the etymology and discovered it’s from Arabic! Vasmer (in my Russian edition) says “Из тур.-араб. muḫajjar ‘ткань из козьей шерсти’, откуда нем. Масhеiеr, польск. muchair, франц. moire”; in other words, it’s from Arabic mukhayyar ‘preferred, chosen’ (referring to the material, presumably), a form of the verb khayyara ‘prefer’ (from which comes also the common adjective khair ‘good’). French moire does not come directly from the Arabic but from English mohair, which the OED says is ultimately from the Arabic but “probably partly via Italian mocaiaro” (itself, of course, from Arabic); the earliest citations have –c-, e.g. 1570 J. CAMPION in R. Hakluyt Princ. Navigations (1599) II. I. 115 “There is also cotten wooll,.. chamlets, mocayares.” We later borrowed moire back from the French. What a tangled multinational web!
The other Russian word whose etymology recently surprised me is a very common one, внезапно [vnezapno] ‘suddenly.’ I’ve known the word for forty years, but for some reason I looked at it and thought “I have no idea where that comes from,” so off I went to Vasmer, where I learned that it’s from Old Russian запа, заапа [za(a)pa] ‘hope, expectation’ and its derivative вънезапу [v”nezapu] ‘suddenly, unexpectedly’ (literally ‘in-not-expectation’); Church Slavic has невъзаапъ [nev”zaap”] (literally ‘not-in-expectation’) in the same sense. But the base word за(а)па is itself a compound, consisting of the prefix за- and a verb that occurs in Old Czech as japati or jápati ‘observe,’ which has a derivative nedojiepie ‘unexpectedly’—comparable to внезапно (or more closely to the obsolete form незапно) but with -do- instead of -za-. But wait, there’s more! The Slavic root *ар- is probably related to Latin op-, found in opīnor ‘think, suppose, hold as an opinion,’ opīnio ‘opinion,’ and inopīnus ‘unexpected’ (a nice parallel). Who would have thought that the root of внезапно was ап?


  1. i read somewhere, but probably on wikipedia, that mohair also came from arabic. but then if it was wikipedia i’m immediately inclined to reject it, even if true.
    when i saw mukhoyár i immediately thought arabic but i’m pitifully unfamiliar with russian and pretty much see arabic in everything.

  2. Never heard of this мухояр, however, there is a commonly used word махер, which seems to mean just about the same thing.

  3. verb that occurs in Old Czech as japati or jápati ‘observe,’
    Crap, my new old dictionary of Old Czech doesn’t even list it.
    The root “(j)ap-” survives to this day in the old Czech name for dodo – “blboun nejapný”. “Blboun” is derived from “blbý” = “crazy, stupid, insane” which is derived from “blábolit” = “babble”. “Nejapný” here means “unsuspected, unexpected, unthought of”.
    Or, as Oberleutnant Lukáš said to Švejk when he found out that the dog Švejk had brought him was stolen from his commanding officer:

    Švejku, dobytku, himllaudon, držte hubu! Buď jste takový rafinovaný ničema, nebo jste takový velbloud a blboun nejapný.
    Švejk, you ass, himllaudon, shut up! Either you’re a really cunning miscreant or you’re just a camel and dodo!

    Hm, that translation needs some tweaking…

  4. i read somewhere, but probably on wikipedia, that mohair also came from arabic
    It did, and now that I reread my post I realize that’s not at all clear. I’ll go fix that—thanks!

  5. there is a commonly used word махер, which seems to mean just about the same thing.
    That word (usually spelled мохер) is a borrowing of English mohair, so it’s ultimately from the same source but by a different route.

  6. A.J.P. Crown says

    I remember hardly any Russian though I did learn a bit at school, but I do know about mohair because we have three mohair goats. They are delightful animals that have very curly wool and look more like sheep than goats when they are unshorn. We shear twice a year. Actually they are usually called in English angora goats (not to be confused with angora rabbits which give angora wool) because they were bred at one time around Ankora in Turkey. You had to give all the wool from your goats to the Emperor or he had your head, or something, chopped off. I think before that they came from Afghanistan. I had always thought mohair came from Turkish, although we’re really only talking ‘mo’, -hair coming from…? somewhere else.

  7. That means that ‘mohair’ is a Hobson-Jobsonism, ie a foreign word that has been adapted to the sound system of the adopting language (OED definition). Presumably, ‘hair’ came about because it was easier to say in English, and the goats’ wool did actually look like hair.

  8. marie-lucie says

    According to the Petit Robert, the word mohair (borrowed in French from English) does come ultimately from Arabic but the English word has been reshaped under the influence of the word hair, so that the resemblance is not obvious.
    Also in the Petit Robert, the word moire (pronounced [mwar]) has the same origin but was originally mouaire. Some time ago there was a discussion about the sociolinguistic aspects of the evolution of the phonetic sequence [we] to [wa] in French, and it looks like this evolution affected this word also.
    Interestingly, the old legal term douaire ‘a widow’s endowment from the property of the deceased husband’ (most of the property devolving to the children or at least the eldest child) did not develop in this way: it is likely that both douaire and mouaire were pronounced with two syllables (eg mou-aire [mu-er]), but that the legal term from the old regime was preserved (as [dwe:r]) only among the classically educated legal profession while the word for a type of cloth was used in the garment trade, which employed large numbers of uneducated women. It is probable that mouaire was reshaped as moire ([mwar]) through the same sociolinguistic process that led working-class women to regularize poète as “pouâte”, as the diphthong [we] was seen as a marker of rural origin.

  9. Fascinating! For more on the “pouâte” phenomenon, see marie-lucie’s comments in this thread.

  10. Crown, A.J.P. says

    I looked up moiré, thinking it must be related to Marie-Lucie’s moire, and here’s what it says in Wiki:
    The term originates from moire (or moiré in its French form), a type of textile, traditionally of silk but now also of cotton or synthetic fiber, with a rippled or ‘watered’ appearance.
    The history of the word moiré is complicated. The earliest agreed origin is the Arabic mukhayyar (مُخَيَّر in Arabic, which means chosen), a cloth made from the wool of the Angora goat, from khayyara (خيّر in Arabic), ‘he chose’ (hence ‘a choice, or excellent, cloth’). It has also been suggested that the Arabic word was formed from the Latin marmoreus, meaning ‘like marble’. By 1570 the word had found its way into English as mohair. This was then adopted into French as mouaire, and by 1660 (in the writings of Samuel Pepys) it had been adopted back into English as moire or moyre. Meanwhile the French mouaire had mutated into a verb, moirer, meaning ‘to produce a watered textile by weaving or pressing’, which by 1823 had spawned the adjective moiré. Moire (pronounced “mwar”) and moiré (pronounced “mwar-ay”) are now used somewhat interchangeably in English, though moire is more often used for the cloth and moiré for the pattern.
    I think douaire must be related to dowry in some way but there’s no wiki etymology for it. Is there a word bouaire, that would give us the Bowery in New York?

  11. Photo of antique jacket in silk cotton blend; the Jordanian bedouins wear polyester now.

  12. rootlesscosmo says

    As far as I know, New York’s Bowery is from Dutch “Bouwerie,” roughly “farm,” from the days when Manhattan north of Canal Street was still rural.

  13. marie-lucie says

    AJP, douaire is indeed related to dowry and also to endow and endowment, from the French root dou- in the old verb douer, ultimately from Latin dotare ‘to give, endow’. The English word dowager is also part of this word family: there must have been an Old French noun douage, borrowed into English as dowage, meaning the endowment of a widow, while dowry is the endowment of a bride (in French la dot). The French equivalent of dowager is douairière, a word not in common usage except in discussing the old nobility.
    The Bowery in New York is not related, as rootlesscosmo says.

  14. marie-lucie says

    The two French words moire and moiré are not quite the same: la moire is ‘watered silk’ (= silk with (deliberate, ornamental) water stains) and moiré is an adjective or participle describing the similarly ‘watered’ appearance of another type of cloth meant to imitate moire. The verb moirer refers to the process of producing the appearance of the typical water stains on a piece of cloth.

  15. Crown, A.J.P. says

    Thank you, Marie-Lucie. i was wondering about that, what wiki meant by a watered textile. I designed (printed) textiles at an early point in my career. La moire sounds like a very pretty printing- or applied technique and moiré like a woven effect. Nowadays in English moiré means the peculiar optical illusion you get by superimposing two patterns of lines.

  16. As a native speaker of Russian, I can confirm that муха is something that I think of in the first place upon hearing the word мухояр, and that I perceive the word as Russian indeed. The connecting vowel -o- is a proper way to connect two stems into a compound name, as in коловорот or much more recent паровоз and самолет. On the other hand, as I have seen many such etymologist’s “fasle friends,” it comes as no surprise to me at all that the word is an ancient (in a somehow wider sense of the word) borrowing, especially given its meaning that is unrelated to the fusion of a fly and a precipice, if such a compound could make any sense at all. Many words that have been adopted and “naturalized” by the language in this manner sound perfectly Russian to me.
    FWIW, the word яр, the second alleged component, that has also fallen out of use long ago, also appears a turkic borrowing (Vasmer); obviously, no connection exists to the homonymic root in the ancient deity name Ярило and a cognate male name Ярослав—yet yet another embedded case of homonymy.

  17. David Marjanović says

    My dad once came across a manifesto that declared Serbian the dead obviously oldest language. Guess how Muḥammad, conveniently spelled Мухамед in that highly entertaining piece of work, was explained? As a dead obvious compound of муха/muha “fly” and мед/med “honey”.


    Heavens! Graf Laudon is a curse? He’s got a monument, uh, somewhere in Vienna.

    Ankora in Turkey.

    Today Ankara, in Greek-speaking times Ankyra.

  18. A.J.P. Crown says

    Knew it was wrong, couldn’t be bothered to look it up. So where does the Angora spelling come from, David?

  19. It is quite fascinating that, as I have just discovered, “angora wool” in English and ангорская шерсть in Russian – while exactly the same literally – refer to entirely different objects: rabbit wool in English, but goat wool in Russian!

  20. So where does the Angora spelling come from, David?
    My guess would be from the Greek pronunciation, which is /’aŋgira/ (AHNG-ghir-ah). If this was borrowed with initial stress, the -i- would have become a schwa, which then could have been realized as /o/ when the stress shifted to the second syllable. Someone must have researched this, though, and I’d be curious to know the answer.

  21. A.J.P. Crown says

    rabbit wool in English, but goat wool in Russian!
    Well done, Russians!
    Thanks, Language. Your answer’s good enough for me.

  22. Stephen Mulraney says

    Strange Polish equivalent: польск. muchair. The usual word is moher, presumably a direct borrowing from English. Maybe muchair is an older form that was replaced, but the ai is weird looking. The u in this form might suggest it comes from the Russian, or from the non-Italian derived path anyway.
    Great story!

Speak Your Mind