When weathermen in Arizona started calling the region’s huge, recent sandstorms haboobs, they got hate mail. People were “insulted,” by the term, demanded that weathermen explain “what gave them the right” to use it, and asked: “how do you think our soldiers feel?”

The fact is, haboob is a perfectly good English word. It’s in your dictionary. It is of Arabic origin however, and therein lies reason for the objections.

Aside from the ridiculous xenophobia this represents, it also indicates complete ignorance about how the English language works.

English is composed largely of words that were borrowed from other languages. Much of our vocabulary is of French or German origin, but English has borrowed words from virtually every language on Earth. A few representative examples:

Finnish (sauna).

Tagalog (boondocks).

Bantu (banjo).

Mandinka (jazz).

Mikmaq (caribou).

Australian Aboriginal (dingo).

Afrikans (trek).

Chinese (tea).

Czech (robot).

Etrucan (arena).

Hawaiian (taboo).

Urdu (bandanna).

Malay (amok).

Tamil (conundrum).

Arawakan (barbecue).

And on and on it goes.

This is part of the genius of English – the reason why it is arguably the most expressive language on Earth. Thanks to many centuries of borrowings, it contains more words than any other language – nearly twice as many as French or German. How many English words are there? Roughly 800,000, counting technical terms; but an exact count is impossible because new words enter the language, both from borrowings and coinings, almost every day.

And. of course, lots and lots of everyday words have been borrowed from Arabic. Off the top of my head, here are a few. Let’s see if the idiots who object to “haboobs” can do without:
































And zero.

In fact, the very concept of zero originated with Arabic mathematicians. Perhaps the yahoos would like to ban it from our arithmetic.


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BRUCE DESILVA worked as a journalist for 40 years before retiring to write crime novels full time. At the Associated Press, he was the writing coach, responsible for training the wire service's reporters and editors worldwide. Previously he directed an elite AP department devoted to investigative reporting and other special projects. Earlier in his career, he worked as an investigative reporter and an editor at The Hartford Courant and The Providence Journal. Stories edited by DeSilva have won virtually every major journalism prize including the Polk Award (twice), the Livingston (twice), the ASNE, and the Batten Medal. He also edited two Pulitzer finalists and helped edit a Pulitzer winner. His first novel, "Rogue Island," was a Publishers Weekly selection as one of the best debut novels of 2010 and won both the Edgar and the MaCavity Awards. The sequel, "Cliff Walk" will be published in May of 2012.

9 responses to “Arizona Yahoos Angry at the Word “Haboobs” Are Ignorant of the Genius of English”

  1. Greg Olear says:

    Well said, Bruce. Arizona is quickly becoming the craziest state in the nation…although one could argue for Minnesota, too.

    Assassin is Arabic, too, isn’t it? Which means assassinate is one of those words that take a root from one language and weld it to a suffix from a different one. Like cheeseburger.

  2. SAA says:

    This was awesome, I had no idea ‘robot’ was Czech in origin. I can’t believe someone really bitched about this, I wish I led the kind of life where my most pressing matter was writing a strongly worded letter to the weather guy on the local news.

  3. Gloria says:

    Not only that, but it has the word boob in it! Is nothing sacred in this society?!

    Fun piece, Bruce.

  4. dwoz says:

    What a CONUNDRUM that those who would impoverish us economically will also do so lexically.

    A niggardly approach to life.

    oh, you’re upset with “niggardly?”

    then instead of using that proper english word that actually has NO racial over- or under-tones, let’s just call you a fucking cheap bastard (none of that is actually english, I believe!)

    great rant, and arizona deserves our derision.

  5. Jessica Blau says:


    And what is the origin of the word YAHOO?

  6. Seth Pollins says:

    Well put, Bruce. That Arabic list includes a few words that I’ve always considered to be the most beautiful words in the English language: julep, orange, pajama.

    It’s such a shame–fear and ignorance is now inspiring language-bashing. Makes me genuinely sad.

    Oh, and I had no idea “barbecue” is Arawakan!

  7. Reno Romero says:

    Great read.

  8. Hi, Jessica. “Yahoo” was the name of a race of brutes in “Gulliver’s Travels.” Jonathan Swift apparently coined the word.

  9. Dana says:

    Fascinating! Magazine, scarlet, apricot.

    Thanks for this!

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