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11 June 2015


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William R. Cumming

Thanks P.B.


Thanks Patrick for the interesting article. It would seem that cultural knowledge and specialization is less valuable when you don't know where you are going to be engaged. Speaking Arabic is not enough and what might help you in Yemen may not help much in Iraq. The bigger issue is that there seems to be a willful ignorance of culture and language that permeates our country. France and others carry a legacy of understanding but there is no investment in maintaining let alone developing these cultural skills.

On a personal note, what I find fascinating is that I used all these words growing up in France and never knew they were Arabic. Even african expressions (marabout comes to mind) seem to appear in our everyday slang.


Have a look here


Patrick Bahzad

Sure Robb,

On the other hand, not knowing anything about any place is not going to help you either. Better speak Arabic with Lebanese accent in Yemen and know how to greet people than not know the language at all.
It's like an Aussie coming to the U.S., would you be likely to trust him more than a Saudi who doesn't speak any English at al ? Or doesn't it make any difference to you ?
As for deployment, you obviously going to have to assign people to the areas they know. I'm not talking about large units here but the intelligence gathering capabilities in combat units are slowly but surely tending towards zero. That is a worrying trend given that HUMINT in general is not exactly our strong side either.
As for using those words, they are very widespread indeed !

Patrick Bahzad

Thx for the map, interesting ! But the numbers are not always correct: regarding just french for example it's a bit off the mark.


Barood means gunpowder in Urdu/hindi. I always thought it has same meaning in Arabic, Persian and Turkish.



Great article. Part of the issue in the US Army, at least when I was there, was half assed cultural training combined with a "fluid" (read: determined by political cycles) mission. In Iraq we spent the last four months being told some Heart of Darkness, kill em all agitprop, and then we get to Mosul and its OKAY BOYS, HEARTS AND MINDS.

More "soldiers as widgets" thinking that because some G-2 has a great idea and it filters down, everyone "Yes Sirs!" and that gets it done. Every month was a new "good idea" and it got to the point where we were handing out candy during the day to the kids of the parents who we were raiding at night.

Best thing I could see happening is trying to bridge the gap between line infantry and Special Forces with a new MOS that doesn't require a two to four year training pipeline? Shake out the infantry for the guys who can habla and shoot and think to help supplement the SF instead of the either or proposition of Benning School for Boys OR running a four minute mile and marching another 20 miles with 200 lbs on your back?


Just wanted to add that it is always pleasure reading your articles. Thank you for your writings!



The evolution of Standard Arabic words into languages more or less peripheral to the Islamic Culture continent is fascinating. There are all kinds of great examples. One of my faves going the other way from French into Arabic is "sharmoota" which means whore in Beiruti dialect. This is from the French word "charmante" Some Infanterie de la Marine guy bequeathed that to the Lebanese in expressions like "Ou sont les charmantes? pl


Of course, this is the same Army that created commisars in the form of SHARP liasons, no hyperbole. So the Army obviously has other concerns, like watering down Ranger School for women to pass.

Babak Makkinejad

"barut" in Persian and Turkish and Urdu and not "barud" which, in Persian, could mean "With stream".

"Spahi" is from Persian - soldier - from "Spah" - Army.


That is very interesting. I was just wondering about many words that have been absorbed from English into Urdu and are used as is. Translating them would be just too unwieldy. For example "fire" (or 'shoot') can only be translated as "goli chala".

Babak Makkinejad

May be of interest:


Richard Armstrong


I don't know if this counts but Wayback in the day I had a master sergeant who was formerly a Marine and then enlisted in the army. He used Vietnamese words and expressions all the time. My civilian jumpmaster would not talk very much about his time in Vietnam other than to say he rarely if ever wore a US uniform or carried a US weapon he sometimes was so far north he probably wasn't in Vietnam any longer. He was fluent in Vietnamese and frequently peppered his speech with Vietnamese expressions and epithets.

Patrick Bahzad

Farooq, you're right it means literally gunpowder but in extended sense it is a "fire fight" because of smell of gunpowder in the air.
As PL mentioned, don't forget that areas more peripheral to the centre of gravity of Arabic culture and language would be subject to various influences, especially Berber in North Africa or colonial as well !
Take English for example, how many regional variations ? How to recognize which is which ?
Just an example from a country I know well: during the civil war in Lebanon, when people would got shot in tit for tat killings, some militias would stop buses and have all passengers say the word "tomato" in Arabic. They would ask that because Palestinians pronounce it differently from Lebanese and that way, they identified who got shot and who not.

Patrick Bahzad

I think I mentioned the Persian etymology, hope you appreciate !

Patrick Bahzad


Indeed ! There all sorts of cross-cultural bridges through language, including that kind ! There's even an expression in german that is said to be rooted in napoleonic armies conquering german lands. The troopers would then invite local women to "visiter ma tente" (meaning come for a visit in my tent for non french speakers) ... That expression supposedly was basis for german saying "don't do any 'visimatente' , meaning don't domanything stupid.

Patrick Bahzad

Recruitment is an important issue you're right. There's still another option to explore: that's the upstream selection of people best suited for which purpose. I mean it's not exactly like the US are totally lacking people who are native speakers of foreign language. The name Ali Soufan comes to mind, even though he was FBI, what a difference he made when he investigated on the USS Cole and other cases.
Food for thought again ! The human element should be at the core of the system, not the other way round. Trimming the human to size so they fit the system has its upsides, but there's no one size fits all, especially when it comes to special or specific skills.


There are many fascinating examples of words that have been adopted by other languages and have become permanent fixtures in the second tongue. One of my favorites is the Russian word for train station- "vokzal". It was unsual and not a Russian-based word, and I was curious as to its origin. It turns out that one of the early train stations in London was at Vauxhall. In the mid-1800's, Russian engineers visited London to view the new train system; one site visited was Vauxhall. A Russian engineer asked what the station building was called and the respose was "Vauxhall." The engineer took it back to Russia and from then on, a train station was called a 'vokzal'.

Babak Makkinejad

Of course, my vanity is soothed.


Quite interesting Patrick.


Thanks for correction.


It absolutely does matter. My brother learned arabic in Cairo but it still helped him when he had to deal with security guards in Syria. Although they laughed and made fun of his accent he was instantly on better terms with them. Any level of proficiency is better then none at all. I would even argue that exposure to any foreign culture is helpful in these situation.

My comment had more to do with the fact that this takes time and dedication of resources. Both seem to be in short supply.


Just a few additions -

There are also Arabic words in English from the British occupation of Egypt:

bint = girl
Shufti = much the same as shuf in the article, same root

A few other comments on the words and their origins:

"flus" meaning money. flus is the plural of fils meaning a copper coin, and comes from the Latin follis.

" qā'id" meaning local commander. It means that in Maghrebi, but in Classical medieval Arabic, it means an army officer.

"al 3askar" for a group of irregulars. Askari used to be pretty common for a soldier in the Middle East/Africa/Islamic South Asia. 3askar starts off meaning a camp, then becomes the army inhabiting the camp, and then I suppose under the French occupation "native soldiers". It was why the 10th Shi'ite Imam was called al-Askari - because he came from the "camp" of Samarra.

It looks like that words that had been standard military lingo, were downgraded under the French occupation of Algeria (plus protectorates in Tunisia and Morocco) to mean the local rabble. Very typical of European notions of superiority.

Will Reks

"So the Army obviously has other concerns, like watering down Ranger School for women to pass."

When did this happen? As far I know, standards haven't changed and no woman has passed. The worst I've seen from these SHARP "commisars" are their terrible video skits and too-long PPTs which can be abbreviated to one or two slides at the most.

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