I've generally assumed that Latin words coming from Semitic are usually transformed by Greek: even Elissa is a Greek transcription of the original.

But this answer indicates that the well-attested Latin word (h)ave "hail!" actually comes from the Semitic root ħ-w-h, and cites some good evidence for it.

Are there other Latin words which were borrowed directly from Semitic languages, rather than via Greek?

(Note that I'm not interested in words coming through Greek here, which excludes most Egyptian names like Isis and Biblical ones like Jēsūs.)


4 Answers 4


I take it you're not interested in later words like sultanus, algebra, alcohol or nadir. Then I hope that this article from 1892 isn't too outdated: 'On Semitic Words in Greek and Latin' by W. Muss-Arnolt (https://www.jstor.org/stable/2935792?seq=1#metadata_info_tab_contents). If you search for "lat." within the pdf, or look in the index at the end, you'll find a few candidates.

However, it is sometimes difficult to determine whether a word was loaned into Latin through Greek, or independently. When the Latin is deformed exactly the same way as the Greek, or contains typically Greek letters or letter combinations like 'y', 'rrh', or 'ch/th/ph', it probably came through Greek. But what about e.g. galbanum and χαλβάνη from Hebr. חלבה, or cummis/gummis and κόμμι from Egyptian kemai? Maybe these did come through Greek, but were adapted to pre-existing Latin words through folk-etymology, or changed for some other or no reason.

I found these ones which the author derives directly from Semitic languages (or cites without disagreement others who do so):

  • pinna: from Semitic פנה - but L&S refer the reader to penna which is IE, and pīna from Greek
  • macellum, macellotae: from Semitic מכלא, pl. mākhəlōth - but Wiktionary derives the first from macula, and L&S compares it to μάχαιρα and mactare
  • mappa: see Hebrew מפר - Wiktionary says that Quintilian called it Punic, L&S cite him: "mappam usitatum Circo nomen, Poeni sibi vindicant"
  • jubilare: from Hebrew יובל - but Wiktionary and De Vaan say it's from a Proto-Italic stem *jū- (with the same suffix as si-bilare)
  • idus: from Semitic `īd (see Ar. عيد) - but Wiktionary says the Arabic comes from the Latin. De Vaan agrees with Varro that it's Etruscan.

He says he doesn't think omasum comes from חמש, but doesn't say why. According to L&S it's Gallic, according to Wiktionary 'probably' Celtic/Gaulish, but "compare Hebrew חֹ֫מֶשׁ‎".


Some more probable direct Phoenician/Punic loanwords:

  • sūfes 'suffete' (a Carthaginian magistrate) from 𐤔𐤐𐤈‎ špṭ 'judge'. Compare Hebrew שׁוֹפֵט‎ šōp̄ēṭ 'judge' (as in the Book of Judges), also a specific type of Israelite leader prior to the establishment of monarchy.

  • matta 'mat'; cf. Hebrew מִטָּה‎ miṭṭā 'bed' and, from the same root, מַטָּה maṭṭā 'below'.

  • dōlium, a type of large jar. Pokorny derives this from PIE *delh₁- 'to split, divide', whence also dolo 'to chop', doleo 'to suffer', but it doesn't make a huge amount of sense semantically and the long ō is hard to explain. De Vaan suggests that since it is a pottery term, it may be a loanword; Hebrew has דְּלִי dəlī 'bucket' as a comparandum.

Obviously the first one of these is more secure than the other two.


To add other possibilities according to Wiktionary (filtering those words that convincingly pass through Ancient Greek):

  • ferrum: [possible Phoenician and maybe through Etruscan]
  • genius: [from Proto-Indo-European but Semitic relatives suggest older substrate word.]
  • ficus: Possibly a Semitic loanword.
  • corbis: it could be also a Semitic borrowing.
  • simila: Of Semitic origin. Appears first in the first century AD, at the height of expansion of the Roman Empire. An Ancient Greek σεμίδᾱλις (semídālis) also exists
  • tunica: Possibly of Central Semitic origin [might come via Greek but probably not if I read Wiktionary correctly]
  • cucuma: Since this word, as Ancient Greek κούκκουμα (koúkkouma), diminutive κουκκούμιον (koukkoúmion), is attested from the 1st century C.E., when the Roman Empire was at its greatest extent, there is little to doubt that this is identical to Classical Syriac ܩܘܿܩܡܳܐ‎ (qūqəmā, “pot”), absolute state ܩܘܿܩܽܡ‎ (qūqum), if not directly borrowed from it,
  • alapa: probably from Aramaic אַלַּף‎ (allap̄, “to teach”),
  • satureia: unknown. [Maybe Semitic origin but direction unknown (see Arabic etymology زعتر]
  • murgiso: Unknown, a word with only remote attestations and deemed foreign. Compare Old Armenian մրգուզ (mrguz, “base, mean; obscure”), perhaps together with it from a Semitic term belonging to the root ر ج س‎ (r-j-s)
  • calautica: A borrowing attested from Afranius; the same as Classical Syriac ܟܲܠܵܘܵܐ‎ (kalāwā), ܟܲܠܘܵܐ‎ (kalwā, “tiara”) from Akkadian 𒆪𒇻𒇻 (/⁠kulūlu⁠/, “a kind of turban or headband”)
  • culullus: Borrowed from Classical Syriac ܩܽܘܠܬܳܐ‎ (qulləṯā), deriving from Akkadian 𒄣𒇷𒌋 (qulliu, “a bowl”),

I just recently stumbled across two examples in Lewis and Short of semitic words, for which L&S cites no Greek intermediary. Of course, the lack of citation itself is not exactly proof that Greek intermediaries do not exist.

The two words are manzer from the Hebrew, and mapālia from the Punic, conveniently located adjacent to each other on the page.

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