Ben Zimmer in WSJ on "Boko Haram"

Ben Zimmer bgzimmer at GMAIL.COM
Sun May 11 03:53:49 UTC 2014

On Sat, May 10, 2014 at 5:08 PM, Christopher Philippo <toff at> wrote:
> On May 10, 2014, at 3:19 PM, Cohen, Gerald Leonard <gcohen at MST.EDU> wrote:
>> Ben Zimmer continues his  weekly very interesting Wall Street Journal column today
>> with an article on  the origin of "Boko" of "Boko Haram." Maybe someone can provide
>> a link to the article.
>> I'm curious about one statement though. “Hausa already had a  well established word
>> for 'book': 'littafi' derived from Arabic."
>> I know no Hausa at all and minimal Arabic.  But I'm aware only of "kitab" as the Arabic
>> word for "book."
>> Arabic does have an L-T-F root meaning "soft, gentle, gracious" (turns up in the female
>> name Latifah; cf. Queen Latifa). Is that the root which provided Hausa "littafi"?
> “Hausa already had a well-established word for ‘book’: ‘littafi,’ derived from Arabic”
> Zimmer, Ben. “The Words For a Ruthless Insurgency.” Wall Street Journal. May 9, 2014.
> “Derived from” is pretty vague.  Maybe the root is لـطـف or it could be something else entirely.
> How did English ever render masjid as mosque or Maghrib as Morocco for example?  Hausa
> could similarly have corrupted the root beyond easy recognition.

According to the Encyclopedia of Arabic Language and Linguistics, the
derivation goes as follows: Arabic _al-kitaab_ > North African dialect
_liktaab_ > Hausa _liktabi_ > _liktafi_ > _littafi_.


Ben Zimmer

The American Dialect Society -

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