BL: Saracen
Posted: 05 June 2019 08:12 AM   [ Ignore ]
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A medieval false etymology

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Posted: 06 June 2019 05:53 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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The Greek probably comes from the Arabic root sarq, meaning east

The Arabic word (not “root") is sharq (الشرق al-sharq), not ”sarq.”

Isidore’s Etymologiae impute theological significance to the etymologies of words and are, by modern standards, laughingly wrong

You mean “laughably.”

and at its root is a slur, characterizing them as making a false claim of being the chosen people

That’s a very odd conclusion that I’m pretty sure would bewilder anyone from that time.  How is “they’re called Saracens because they claim to descend from Sarah” any different from “they’re called Hagarenes because they claim to descend from Hagar”?  It wasn’t a matter of being “the chosen people” (unless you have a citation for that claim), it was a matter of the ever-popular (in premodern times) game of establishing lines of descent.  I’m pretty sure nobody hated Arabs because they (allegedly) claimed descent from Sarah.

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Posted: 06 June 2019 06:07 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Corrections made.

As to the descent from Sarah, it’s a question of legitimacy. To the medieval European, descent from Sarah had primacy and descent from Hagar had less prestige. So to falsely claim descent from Sarah is to lay claim to a heritage that one does not have a right to. Someone who does that isn’t to be trusted. Of course, there never was such a claim; the whole thing is invented.

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Posted: 06 June 2019 02:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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...Its correct etymology isn’t all that interesting…

Actually, I find it very interesting, at least enough to ask a couple of questions.  You write that the Greek σαρακηνός probably comes from the Arabic sharq, meaning east.  This has me wondering why the Greeks would borrow an Arabic word meaning east instead of using their own, like ανατολικός.  If it is because that is what the Arabic-speakers called themselves, then I have to wonder why the Arabs would refer to themselves as “sharq”, that is, “easterners”.  East of who?  Understand, I’m not questioning the veracity of the etymology, but only curious about how it came about.  Perhaps it was as simple as some Greek guy asking, “What do you call yourselves?” and some Arab guy, thinking he is being asked where he is from, pointing east and answering, “Sharq”.

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Posted: 07 June 2019 06:27 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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As to the descent from Sarah, it’s a question of legitimacy. To the medieval European, descent from Sarah had primacy and descent from Hagar had less prestige. So to falsely claim descent from Sarah is to lay claim to a heritage that one does not have a right to.

Sure, but that’s very different from talking about a “slur,” which makes it sound like it was the medieval equivalent of the n-word. 

This has me wondering why the Greeks would borrow an Arabic word meaning east instead of using their own, like ανατολικός.  If it is because that is what the Arabic-speakers called themselves, then I have to wonder why the Arabs would refer to themselves as “sharq”, that is, “easterners”.  East of who?  Understand, I’m not questioning the veracity of the etymology, but only curious about how it came about.  Perhaps it was as simple as some Greek guy asking, “What do you call yourselves?” and some Arab guy, thinking he is being asked where he is from, pointing east and answering, “Sharq”.

The Muslim world was divided into a western half, called maghrabi ‘western,’ and an eastern half, called sharqi.  I’m guessing this is at the base of it, but of course I’d be interested in learning more about the history of the term.

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Posted: 07 June 2019 07:16 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Good point about slur. I’ve altered the wording.

The word Saracen predates Islam. While it comes from sharq, it’s not because of the division between east and west in Islam. My guess is that it’s what Egyptians called the people. They lived to the immediate east of Egypt.

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Posted: 09 June 2019 06:50 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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Very likely.

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Posted: 10 June 2019 02:06 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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Dave Wilton - 07 June 2019 07:16 AM

The word Saracen predates Islam. While it comes from sharq, it’s not because of the division between east and west in Islam. My guess is that it’s what Egyptians called the people. They lived to the immediate east of Egypt.

That sounds plausible.  Thanks, Dave.

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Posted: 17 June 2019 10:10 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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languagehat - 07 June 2019 06:27 AM

The Muslim world was divided into a western half, called maghrabi ‘western,’ and an eastern half, called sharqi.  I’m guessing this is at the base of it, but of course I’d be interested in learning more about the history of the term.

The Arab world is still divided into the Maghreb, “place of sunset”, and Mashriq, “place of sunrise”. Definitions vary, but it’s usually everywhere east of Egypt is in the Mashrig, everywhere to the west in the Maghreb.

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