In which I indulge my weird fascination with etymologies

In which I indulge my weird fascination with etymologies June 15, 2019


Peruvian coast
A coastal view in Lima, Peru (Wikimedia Commons public domain photo)


As we went through the “Control de Aduanas” just now, I couldn’t help but think about the etymology of the word aduana (“customs”).


Like its French equivalent (douane), it derives from the Arabic diwan (or, perhaps better, diwaan), which means a “registry” or even an “anthology.”  A poet’s collected work is gatherd into a diwan.   So, for example, there is a diwan of the poems of Abu Nuwas, and one of al-Mutanabbi, and etc.  The great German poet Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, enchanted by “the East” and not to be outdone, wrote a “West-östlicher Divan” (typically rendered as “West-Eastern Divan”) in twelve books.  In the Arabic translation of 1 Nephi, when Nephi makes an account of his life, the text uses a form of the verb dawwana, “to make a list or a registry.”


So why does a common Western word for “customs,” in the sense of a kind of border police, derive from Arabic?  Off the top of my head, I don’t really know.


But here’s a curious fact:  Arabic doesn’t use any form of diwan or of the triliteral root d-w-n for “customs.”  Rather, it uses the ugly Orcish-sounding word gumruk — which descends from the Latin term commercium.  (Drop off the final -ium and you’re left with commerc, which, when you pronounce it with the original hard “c” of Latin, effectively a “k,” sounds quite like gumruk.


So here’s my not entirely serious but also not entirely unserious suggestion for why Europeans and Arabs both derived the word for “customs” from their enemies:  Everybody hates customs and everybody resents meddling and inhospitable police at border crossings.


I still recall a passage from the memoirs of the great twelfth-century traveler Ibn Jubayr, where he watches Egyptian customs officials rifling through his luggage and stealing from it right in front of him.  Surely, he remarks, if the great Sultan Salah al-Din, Saladin, had been present, that illustrious warrior would have put an end to such corruption.  (I agree.  Salah al-Din is one of my heroes too, as he was one of Dante’s.)


An irritating memory:  Somebody in Egyptian customs stole volumes 2 and 4 of my four-volume Arabic edition of the Thousand and One Nights — which irritated me more, in an odd way, than if he had simply stolen all four volumes.  Why leave me volumes 1 and 3?  Just to infuriate me?


A final note on diwan.  It’s the same Arabic word (“registry”) from which derives the name of the piece of furniture that we know as a “divan.”  Such couch-like items were common in the medieval and early modern Middle East, particularly (pronounced as divan) in Persian and Ottoman Turkish government offices where documents were processed.


Posted from Lima, Peru



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