A Diamond’s Eye View of the World

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

an eye for a legume: lens & lentil in three languages

Posted by adiamondinsunlight on May 12, 2007

Do you ever think its funny that in French lens and lentil are the same word? G asked me the other day.

As someone who is both quite fond of lentils (lentilles) and quite blind without contacts (lentilles de contact), I take these words quite seriously – in English and Arabic, as well as in French.

p1020518.jpg

(samples from my lentil collection – and please note how well a money clip from one’s alma mater serves as a bag clip!)

It isn’t so surprising that English should be similar – after all, “lens” comes from the Latin “lens, lentis”, which means “lentil”.

Lenses are so named because they resemble lentils – not the other way round. English, French, and Spanish (lente/lenteja) all derive their lens/lentil words from the Latin.

What surprises me more is that Arabic, which has no Latin roots, also describes lenses as lentil-like.

In Arabic, the word for lentil/s is 3adas, عدس.

The word for lens is 3adasa, عدسة.

Its tempting to speculate various ways that this linguistic similarity might have developed.

For example, one might think that the lens/lentil relationship is so obvious that people everywhere have noticed it, and hence lens and lentil are related words in all languages.

Or one might think that (having just looked up the words lens and lentil in Greek: phakos/phaka) both Latin and Arabic took the relationship from Greek.

Or one might think that Romans in the Near East, where lentils originated (something else this little bout of language research has taught me), and took both the word and the lentil back to Rome.

Word-nerding is such a nice way to spend a lazy Saturday afternoon🙂.

5 Responses to “an eye for a legume: lens & lentil in three languages”

  1. Moussa said

    Man, I’ve been eating 3adas for, um, all my life, and I never thought or realized that 3adas may be from 3adasa, ie lens. Interesting, now I have a table conversation opener whenever the meal is mujaddara🙂
    I like this lazy Saturday afternoon post.

  2. intlxpatr said

    WordNerd! It must run in the family.

  3. […] Diamond explains the relationship between the name of lentils (the ones we eat) lenses (the optical thing used to see): Lenses are so named because they resemble lentils – not the other way round. English, French, and Spanish (lente/lenteja) all derive their lens/lentil words from the Latin. What surprises me more is that Arabic, which has no Latin roots, also describes lenses as lentil-like. In Arabic, the word for lentil/s is 3adas, عدس. The word for lens is 3adasa, عدسة. […]

  4. Med said

    Hurray for word nerdiness!

  5. Fantastic, Moussa – I never thought of the table talk possibilities🙂. Your mention of mujaddara reminds me that I should write a post on the confusing (and contested, hotly, by various friends) terms for dishes here: mujaddara vs. mudardara; hummus vs. msabaha. I am often accused of using the “wrong” term – which can be either, depending on the speaker’s point of view!

    Khalti & Med – you are two of my favorite fellow word nerds🙂.

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