The proper name Arab or “Arabian” (and cognates in other languages) has been used to translate several different but similar sounding words in ancient and classical texts which do not necessarily have the same meaning or origin. The etymology of the term is of course closely linked to that of the place name “Arabia”. Grunebaum, in his book Classical Islam said that an approximate translation is “passerby” or “nomad”.[1]

Semitic etymology

The root of the word has many meanings in Semitic languages including “west/sunset,” “desert,” “mingle,” “merchant,” “raven” and “comprehensible” with all of these having varying degrees of relevance to the emergence of the name. It is also possible that some forms were metathetical from ‘-B-R “moving around” (Arabic ‘-B-R “traverse”), and hence, it is alleged, “nomadic.”

The plurality of meanings results partly from the assimilation of the proto-Semitic ghayin with ‘ayin in some languages. In Hebrew the word ‘arav thus has the same triconsonantal root as the root meaning “west” (ma’arav) “setting sun” or “evening” (ma’ariv,’erev). The direct Arabic cognate of this is garb (“west”, etc.) rather than ‘arab; however, in Ugaritic and Sayhadic,[2] languages which normally preserve proto-Semitic ghayin, this root is found with ‘ayin adding to the confusion.[3]

In Arabic

In the Qur’an, the word ‘arab does not appear, only the nisba adjective, ‘arabiyyun: The Qur’an is referring to itself as ‘arabiyyun”Arabic” and mubinun “clear”. The two qualities are connected, for example in ayat 43.2-3, “By the clear Book: We have made it an Arabic recitation in order that you may understand”, and the Qur’an came to be regarded as the prime example of al-’arabiyyatu, the language of the Arabs. The term ‘i’rab is from the same root, referring to a particularly clear and correct mode of speech. Bedouin elders still use this term with the same meaning; those whose speech they comprehend (i.e. Arabic-speakers) they call Arab, and those whose speech is of unknown meaning to them, they call Ajam (ajam or ajami). In the Persian Gulfregion, the term Ajam is often used to refer to the Persians.[4]

The plural noun ‘a’rab refers to the Bedouin tribes of the desert who resisted Muhammad, for example in ayat 9.97,

al-’a’rabu ‘ašaddu kufran wa-nifaqan “the Bedouin are the worst in disbelief and hypocrisy”.

Based on this, in early Islamic terminology, ‘arab referred to sedentary Arabs, living in cities such as Mecca and Medina, and’a’rab referred to the Arab Bedouins, carrying a negative connotation due to the Qur’anic verdict just cited. Following the Islamic conquest of the 8th century, however, the language of the nomadic Arabs came to be regarded as preserving the highest purity by the grammarians following Abi Ishaq, and the term kalam al-’Arab “language of the Arabs” came to denote the uncontaminated language of the Bedouins.

Cf. the modern toponyms Algarve and Arava

[edit]In Assyrian

Although the term mâtu arbâi describing Gindibu in Assyrians texts is conventionally translated of Arab land, nothing is known with certainty about the exact location or extent of the land being referred to, nor what literal meaning the name had. In fact several different ethnonyms are found in Assyrian texts that are conventionally translated “Arab”: Arabi, Arubu, Aribi and Urbi. The presence of Proto-Arabic names amongst those qualified by the terms arguably justifies the translation “Arab” although it is not certain if they all in fact represent the same group. They may plausibly be borrowings from Aramaic or Canaanite of words derived from either the proto-Semitic root ‘gh-r-b or ‘-r-b.

It is in the case of the Assyrian forms that a possible derivation from ‘gh-r-b (“west”) is most plausible, referring to people or land lying west of Assyria in a similar vein to the later Greek use of the term Saracen meaning in Arabic “Easterners”, šarqiyyun for people living in the east.

In Hebrew

In Hebrew the words ‘arav and ‘aravah literally mean “desert” or “steppe”. In the Hebrew Bible the latter feminine form is used exclusively for the Arabah, a region associated with the Nabateans, who spoke Arabic. The former masculine form is used inIsaiah 21:13 and Ezekiel 27:21 for the region of the settlement of Kedar in the Syrian Desert. 2 Chronicles 9:14 contrasts “kings of ‘arav ” with “governors of the country” when listing those who brought tribute to King Solomon. The word is typically translated Arabia and is the name for Arabia in Modern Hebrew. The New Revised Standard Version of the Bible uses instead the literal translation “desert plain” for the verse in Isaiah. The adjectival noun ‘aravi formed from ‘arav is used in Isaiah 13:20 and Jeremiah3:2 for a desert dweller. It is typically translated Arabian or Arab and is the modern Hebrew word for Arab. The New Revised Standard Version uses the translation “nomad” for the verse in Jeremiah.

In the Bible, the word ‘arav is closely associated with the word ‘erev meaning a “mix of people” which has identical spelling in unvowelled text. Jeremiah 25:24 parallels “kings of ‘arav ” with “kings of the ‘erev that dwell in the wilderness”. The account in 1Kings 10:15 matching 2 Chronicles 9:14 is traditionally vowellized to read “kings of the ‘erev “. The people in question are understood to be the early Nabateans who do indeed appear to have been a mix of different tribes. The medieval writer Ibn an-Nadim, in Kitab al-Fihrist, derived the word “Arab” from a Syriac pun by Abraham on the same root: in his account, Abraham addresses Ishmael and tells him u’rub, from Syriac ‘rob, “mingle”.

The early Nabateans are also referred to as ‘arvim in Nehemiah 4:7 and the singular ‘arvi is applied to Geshem a leader who opposed Nehemiah. This term is identical to ‘aravi in unvowelled text but traditionally vowelized differently. It is usually translated “Arabian” or “Arab” and was used in early 20th century Hebrew to mean Arab. However it is unclear if the term related more to’arav or to ‘erev. On the one hand its vowelization resembles that of the term ‘arvati (Arbathite) which is understood as an adjective formed from ‘aravah; thus it is plausibly a similarly formed adjective from ‘arav and thus a variant of ‘aravi. On the other hand it is used in 2 Chronicles 21:16 for a seemingly different people located in Africa plausibly the same Africans referred to as an ‘erev (mix of people) in Ezekiel 30:5. Any of the other meanings of the root are also possible as the origin of the name.

The words ‘aravim (plural of ‘aravi) and ‘arvim appear the same in unvowelled texts as the word ‘orvim meaning ravens. The occurrences of the word in 1 Kings 17:4-6 are traditionally vowellized to read ‘orvim. In the Talmud (Chullin 5a) a debate is recorded as to whether the passage refers to birds or to a people so named, noting a Midianite chieftain named Oreb (‘orev: raven) and the place of his death, the Rock of Oreb. Jerome understood the term as the name of a people of a town which he described as being in the confines of the Arabians. (Genesis Rabba mentions a town named Orbo near Beth Shean.) One meaning of the root ‘-r-b in Hebrew is “exchange/trade” (la’arov: “to exchange”, ma’arav: “merchandise”) whence ‘orvim can also be understood to mean “exchangers” or “merchants”, a usage attested in the construct form in Ezekiel 27:27 which speaks of’orvei ma’aravekh: “exchangers of thy merchandise”. The Ferrar Fenton Bible translates the term as “Arabians” in 1 Kings 17:4-6.

2 Chronicles 26:17 mentions a people called ‘Arviyim who lived in Gur-baal. Their name differs from those mentioned above in the Bible in that it contains an extra letter yod but is also translated “Arabian”. 2 Chronicles 17:11 mentions a people called Arvi’imwho brought Jehoshaphat tribute of rams and he-goats. Their name is also generally translated as “Arabians” although it differs noticeably in spelling from the above mentioned names as it contains the letter aleph at the end of the stem. Nothing else is known about these groups.


1.         ^ Grunebaum, p. 16

2.         ^ Sabaic Dictionary (English-French-Arabic) p. 18, A.F.L. Beeston, W.W. Muller, M.A. Ghul, J. Ryckmans

3.         ^ If we assume that the word for “evening” was originally pronounced with ‘ayin, or that the distinction between ‘ayin and ghayinwas not phonemic, it could be connected with the “mixture” meaning, as evening is when day mixes with night.

4.         ^ An analogy would be the distinction in Slavic languages between Slav (speaking people, from slovo, word) and Niemiec (dumb people, used for the Germans).


‘           Edward Lipinski, Semitic Languages: Outlines of a Comparative Grammar, 2nd ed., Orientalia Lovanensia Analecta: Leuven 2001. ISBN 90-429-0815-7

‘           The Catholic Encyclopedia, Robert Appleton Company, 1907, Online Edition, K. Night 2003: article Arabia

‘           The Jewish Encyclopedia, Funk and Wagnalls, 1901-1906, Online Edition,, 2002: article Arabia

‘           The New Revised Standard Version, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America, 1989, 1995.

‘           Fenton, Ferrar. The Holy Bible in modern English : containing the complete Sacred Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, Destiny Publishers, Merrimac, Massachusetts, U.S.A., 1906, 1966. OCLC 234057370

‘           Grunebaum, G. E. von (1970). Classical Islam: A History 600 A.D. – 1258 A.D.. Aldine Publishing Company. ISBN 0-202-15016-X

‘           Durant, Will (1950). The Age of Faith: A History of Medieval Civilization — Christian, Islamic, and Judaic — from Constantine to Dante: A.D. 325-1300. The Story of Civilization, volume IV. New York: Simon and Schuster. OCLC 45079949