A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

a multi-faceted look at the middle east, and the middle west

moving from “poor” to “petty”: from مسكين to mesquin

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on November 26, 2009

Last night I rang in Thanksgiving Eve by reading a little novel with some phrases en francais. One of them used a word that I hadn’t seen before – but which looked a great deal like a word I knew in Arabic.

The French word was “mesquinerie”. Doesn’t that look a great deal like “meskin”, or مسكين?

I thought so, and since I didn’t have a dictionary at hand, I turn, ed to the Internet. Wordreference told me that “mesquin” means something slightly different than “meskin”: “mesquin” means “petty”, or even “cheap”, while “meskin” means “poor”, both in the sense of “without money” and also in the sense of “needing sympathy”.

But – at least according to myetymology.com – the two words are indeed related, and uses of “mesquin” are found as far back in time as the 1600s.

It may be that the connection came through Spanish: An Etymological Dictionary of the French Language, published in 1882 and available online as a Google Book, describes “mesquin” as a Spanish term that came into French in the 1100s:

Mesquin: adj., mean, shabby (properly, poor); from Sp. mezquino (properly the Ar. maskin, poor, mean, servile, then a slave.

The Spanish word also made its way into Italian, as “meschino”. If you are interested in the Italian derivation, as well as an intriguing discussion of how “meskin” came into Arabic, you might enjoy this 1935 article, “The etymology of meschino and its cognates”.

Those of you – like me – with no digital library access will only be able to read the first page – but its a pretty rich page, and well worth reading. It suggests that the “slave” meaning in particular comes from the pre-Arabic usage, which helps explain the seeming oddity of an Arabic root that means “live” (as in “reside”) transmuting into an adjective that means “poor”.

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One Response to “moving from “poor” to “petty”: from مسكين to mesquin”

  1. intlxpatr said

    I’ve always heard it used in the context in which it means “pitiful”; good catch on your part tracking down the words relatives. :-)

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