I heard recently that the French word for shirt (chemise) is etymologically related to the Arabic word with the same meaning, قميص (qamiṣ).
Now, word origins probably aren’t at the top of most people’s lists of exciting knowledge. But, they’re close to the top of mine, and exotic ones like this trump just about everything else.
But then, I thought for a second. Chemise in French; camisa in Spanish; camicia in Italian. Probably . . . Not an Arabic thing.
The Latin Source of Chemise
The French chemise has cognate terms in Spanish (camisa) and Italian (camicia), and just about every source I can find agrees that all (probably) derive from Late Latin camisia, meaning shirt (nightgown, in Classical usage).
The derivation of Spanish camisa from camisia speaks for itself: The only phonetic difference to account for is the transformation of the final diphthong –ia to –a, which hardly requires justification. Say it five times fast and see if you don’t drop the i yourself.
Italian camicia is almost identical orthographically, but with soft -c in the final syllable (like cherry) rather than the universally hard –c of Classical Latin (like castle). As in many languages, Italian has soft –c before front vowels (e and i, most significantly) while maintaining hard –c before back vowels, due — I believe — to details of place of articulation.
Of this etymological triptych, the French chemise is the most distant from the Latin camisia. In the interest of brevity, I won’t linger on the transformations that have taken place to produce the latter, but do note that similar patterns exist in other French words of established Latin origin: Château from Castellum, for instance1.
I think it hard to argue that the Latin isn’t the immediate source of these three words. But, as always, I’m open to rebuttals.
Arab(ic) Roads Into Europe(an Languages)
My initial hypothesis in favor of the Arabic source of chemise was that Andalusi Arabic had somehow corrupted (presumably classical) qamiṣ, possibly by feminizing the word to produce qamiṣah (قميصة), for whatever reason.
Given the drastic differences we see between modern Arabic dialects these days, this isn’t that far-fetched, and it would explain the near-identical form of camisa that occurs in Spanish.
But, I concede that it is a bit further out than accepting camisia as the ultimate source of chemise. Still, it’s good to get as close to proving things as possible, so I tried a historical approach to eliminating Arabic as candidate for the word’s origin.
Interestingly, both Old Portuguese and Old French had the same forms of the word that the modern incarnations of those languages maintain — camisa in the former, as in Spanish, and chemise in the latter.
Unfortunately, neither language was recorded until well after the Muslim conquest in Spain, so even if I had been able to find the reputable sources for first usage that I’d at first set out for, I wouldn’t have been able to rule out Arabic as a potential source on the basis of date of first appearance alone.
Also unfortunate is the fact that the forms of Vulgar Latin, being Vulgar, aren’t exactly well-recorded, what with the Dark Ages being so . . . Well, dark2. Sadly enough, the historical record doesn’t do much good here.
But geography helps a bit. Chemise/camisa/camicia are clearly related terms. If Arabic were the source of camisa, French chemise and Italian camicia would probably derive from the Arabic only indirectly, through Spanish.
Given the sheer distance of French- and Italian-speaking communities from most of Muslim Spain, linguistic factors notwithstanding, such diffusion seems unlikely enough to justify rejecting an Arabic source in favor of a derivation from Latin.
This is the view espoused by a number of well-established dictionaries. The Collins English dictionary suggests a Celtic root. Wiktionary suggests Transalpine Gaulish, with an ultimately Germanic origin. The Online Etymology Dictionary and American Heritage entries agree, as do I. Neither Random House nor the Oxford Dictionaries site go any further than Latin.
Stepping Back Further: Ugaritic Roots
A distinguishing feature of the Semitic languages is their root system. For brevity’s sake, I’ll mention only the essentials.
Semitic languages, such as Arabic, Hebrew, and Ugaritic3, derive many of their words by superimposing vowel patterns on a set of consonants, whose order is fixed.
This is easier to understand with examples. In Arabic, the root consonants mlk are associated with ownership, rule (in the sense of reign), etc. In the Classical language4, malik- means king; muluk- means kings; malaki means royal; milk– means property; mulk- means kingship; mamlakat- means kingdom; and the list goes on.
A crucial point is that many Semitic languages have many of these roots in common. In Hebrew, mlk is also associated with ownership and rule; melek is the word for king. In both Classical Arabic and Hebrew, the roots rbb are associated with lordship; in both languages5, rabbi means my master.
The Arabic qamiṣ has, as its roots, qms, associated with the concept of covering, or enveloping. In Hebrew, one finds the closely related root q-m-ts (קמץ). This is associated with a clenched hand, or something enclosed within it.
I’ve seen it suggested that Ugaritic has a related root, qmṣ, meaning ‘garment’, that supplied Late Greek with the word καμισίων (kamisíôn), with the same meaning. Let’s assume that’s the case, for the sake of argument.
Ugaritic was spoken in modern-day Syria, where both the Greeks and Romans had a prominent presence6. This is significant, as it provides us with several centuries of time in which Ugaritic could have influenced Greek-speaking populations. I don’t know how likely it is that the root supplied the Hellenes with kamisíôn, but, I suppose it’s possible.
I found the word in this collection of fragments of Clemens of Alexandria‘s work (alternate link). His traditional dates are 150-215C.E., well before the Muslim conquest of 711.
I haven’t yet pinned down a first attestation for camisia, but — assuming this roughly 2nd century occurrence of kamisíôn is near to its first occurrence — it would be compelling if it followed these dates.
If so, French very possibly could chemise not from Arabic, but from one of its Semitic cousins.
Some linguists point to the PIE (Proto Indo-European) root of *kam- as the ultimate source of camisia, and propose that Arabic got qamis from the European languages.
I find this unlikely, due to the relative conservatism of Semitic languages. Hebrew, Akkadian, Assyrian, and Ugaritic have isomorphic roots with related meaning; it would be strange for Arabic not to have a native word built off the same pattern.
Further, the fact that kamision and camisia share the same root consonants7 as the Semitic terms is compelling.
Words that are purported to be related to camisia via *kam– include hemedi (Old High German) and hemeþe (Old English).
I’m entirely unfamiliar with Celtic languages. As such, the possibility of the transformation (h-, t*-) –> (c, s) is not something I can really comment on.
But, at first blush, it seems less likely than the Ugaritic –> Greek –> Latin –> Romance flow — but that might just be the part of me in love with the exotic talking.
None of this is to be interpreted as rigorous scholarship — just thoughts on the issue. I’ll update this in the future as I gain more familiarity with Latin, Greek, and the Ancient Semitic languages. With luck, I’ll happen upon a solution.
1. The ^ symbol, called the circumflex accent (l’accent circonflexe) in French orthography or a caret in general typography, indicates that the vowel it marks was once followed by an s. This usage makes sense when you consider the meaning of the word caret in the first place: It is a form of the Latin verb carere, meaning to lack.
2. I use the term a bit tongue-in-cheek:
“The stereotype of the Middle Ages as “the Dark Ages” fostered by Renaissance humanists and Enlightenment philosophes has, of course, long since been abandoned by scholars.” ~ Ralph Ralco
“Historians and archaeologists have never liked the label Dark Ages . . . ” ~ Christopher Snyder
3. This is obviously not an exhaustive list, but these are the members of the Semitic language family with which I’m most familiar. For more information on the Semitic root system, see this document from the American Heritage Dictionary and this page from the Ancient Hebrew Research Center.
4. By Classical Arabic, I am referring specifically to the language of the Qur’an, as presented in W.M. Thackton’s An Introduction to Classical and Koranic Arabic. The book is available for viewing in PDF format at this link. The examples regarding the root mlk can be found on page 22. The hyphen at the end indicate that these are ‘stems’, to which inflectional endings denoting possesive, nominative, genitive, or accusative function are added.
Many of these words are by no means restricted to Classical usage, however. In Egypt, the phrase for heads or tails is malik wala kitaabah, meaning king or writing. Probably, this has to do with the fact that the first ancient coins of Egypt featured a face on one side and writing on the other.
5. Cf. the familiar Hebrew word rabbi with the second ‘ayat (verse) from the Opener of the Qur’an: Alhamdullilahi r-rabbi l-alameen, loosely translated as All praise due to Allah, Lord of all the worlds.
6. Greek is still spoken in some parts of Lebanon and Syria.
7. Two points here. First: While kamision and camisia share a similar vocalic pattern, it would be premature to conclude that the former shares that pattern with its Semitic source (if, of course, it has one). Ugaritic, like most Semitic languages, did not record its vowels. As it’s no longer spoken, it’s probably impossible to go further than the consonantal root.
Second: kamision appears to have kmsn, but in fact, the final -on is a characteristic ending of neuter nouns. I’m not entirely up on my Greek, but if the word does indeed have a Semitic source, it’s probable that -on (or –ion) was added simply to facilitate inflection. As such, the presene of the final –n might not serve to discredit the Ugaritic hypothesis.