5 Arabic words I wish we had in English

My sister Anna meeting some long lost relatives in Lebanon. (Photo by Deric Gruen)
The author’s sister Anna Hink (center) meeting some long lost relatives in Lebanon. (Photo by Deric Gruen)

As a second-generation nuss-nuss (“half n’ half”) Arab American who is Lebanese and German,  it was only in my adult life that I took a keen interest in my grandparents’ language.

I took a standard Arabic course in Seattle, then traveled to Lebanon to learn the spoken language, only to be evacuated in the summer of 2006 when bombs started dropping on Beirut during a brief war between Hezbollah and Israel.

Four years later, I found a comfortable space to learn Arabic in Syria, living with another nuss-nuss, studying with a tutor, and practicing my street language skills while traveling the countryside by bicycle.

But mostly, the context that I grew up learning Arabic was in the house and with relatives. Their words carried a great amount of love. And if for the majority of my life, I only knew five Arabic words and they made it to my generation, I figure, they’re probably pretty good words!

If only we had these five in English:

1. Saha

Men eating to their “two-healths” — or sahtein — in Damascus.

I suspect many of you have had the experience of sitting next to someone having a coughing fit and were not sure what to say.

“Bless you” — like for a sneeze — doesn’t quite cut it.  

Put simply, saha means “health.” What made its use unique for me — and I realize not all Arabic speakers use it this way — is its application for a cough.

Later in life, I learned saha can be used much more extensively and was even self-duplicating in the version of sahtein, or “two-healths,” used at meal time to wish good eating, to which the eater replies ala-albeck or “to your heart.”


2. Yallah

 The author filming on the go with his young friend on bike in Aleppo, Syria.

As a kid I had no idea that yallah was Arabic, I just knew that I was late.

Used as liberally in Tel Aviv as Amman (so I’ve heard), this playful word lets you know it’s time to get a move on. It has been adapted for modern times; give “yallah-bye” a try to end a phone call like you were born cruising the Corniche in Beirut.

Yallah, let’s get onto the next word already!

3. Smallah

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The author with his toddler niece. (Photo by Anna Hink)

In my family, smallah is often accompanied by pinches on the cheek and “you’re getting big” comments. Smallah is often used in praise of a baby or something pretty darn cute, but also means “hold the envy” and “save the evil eye.” Amazing how something so complex — expressing both adoration and lack of spite — can be encompassed in one word.

 4. Wallah

True story: the author saw this elder at a cafe in Damascus.

Apparently wallah is much more common around town, but I grew up hearing wallah. Wallah in 1990s American TV English is something like “for real, though” or more plainly, “I swear.”

Is there a way to affirm with greater confidence the utter truth and assurance of your statement then following it by wallah? I think not.

Use it with conviction, and the occasional wink.

5. Inshallah

The author's Arabic tutor in Damascus in 2009. (Photo by Deric Gruen)
The author’s Arabic tutor in Damascus in 2009. (Photo by Deric Gruen)

Can you imagine the heat I would get for leaving out this gem?

“God willing” I suppose is the literal transition, but it means so much more.

It’s a word that’s used widely by the passive-aggressive or flaky friend who can’t commit to something (“inshallah”), it can be used with true heart and hope, (“inshallah!”), or how about just honest to goodness uncertainty (“inshallah?”). 

Khalas. That’s a wrap! — my half-Lebanese American version of Arabic’s best, that is.

Let’s have my favorite Syrian-American bilingual hip-hop artist take us out.

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40 Comments

  1. Great post Deric!

    I've heard a lot of people say "Mashallah" with a similar meaning to what you describe for "Smallah." People have it painted on fancy cars or trucks in Pakistan, and I've even had people say it to me on the street because I'm tall.

    Do you know if it's the same thing, just in different dialects or something?

    1. Alex – pretty similar, but maybe slightly different. Smallah most often used with a baby, mashallah can also be used but perhaps more versatile and the literal translation is slightly different, smallah means in god's name, mashallah, god willing. Other's may have a different take?

      1. I have never before heard someone drop the bi off of bismillah…. subhanallah… I guess it would be ismallah…. but it’s weird.

    2. Smallah = Ism Allah = God’s name. Mashallah = Ma Sha’ Allah = What God Wanted (so in your case they’re praising God’s creation in you, being tall). They’re pretty much the same thing but in the Levant region, Smallah is more common while Mashallah perhaps is more used in the Gulf region (roughly).

      1. Egyptians too use Ma’Shaa’Allah but may be religious ones because it is mentioned in Quran to say it … it is usually said when you see something nice with someone else, we say that so you don’t envy the person who has it …

    3. Esmallah usually Syrian lebanease Palestinian used
      We in gulf countries use Mashallah which has meaning when you like something or surprised from how a thing or person is (better than us )I mean fairness,blue eyes,how tall sop many things
      We say it so that the person won’t get bad eye from us & harm her or him
      We believe Any work starts by name of Allah nothing harm would happens

      1. Fair skin and blue eyes does not make anyone “better than you” and definitely is not the reason we give “Mashallah”, please let’s not forget all of Allahs creations fair skinned, dark skinned, light eyed, dark eyed are born in his likeness.

  2. mashallah means “nice creation of ALLAH” and its usually used to show that u like something. also can be used to draw envy particular away .
    EsmaALLAH as deric said “in gods name” and used to push evil in general away and usually used with babies

    1. Yes, In Egypt the meaning of both expressions is exactly as Omnia says. We have to keep in mind that sometimes the use is slightly different from one Arabic-speaking country to another.

  3. Nice selection! And I’m sure you could come up with several instalments…

    BTW, the hip-hop song is based on the poem “Qari’at al-finjan”, by Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani ;)

  4. Great article but I would argue you left off a great one: Mabrook – nothing like it in English and such a great word.

  5. good read, i just have a tiny correction Smallah, comes from EsmAlla which literally translates to (name of god) . we use it when, as you said, see a cute baby go Aaaah esmallah like saying (oh praise the lord , bless the baby) and agreeing with you on the fact that it means (hold the evil eye) . it is just used to bless something by who says it against something that is not in his eye (he does not envy the owner for it) . baby, house, car, anything generally.

  6. Na3iman!! You left out Na3iman, I always feel stumped when a colleague in France comes in fresh from the barber/hair dresser. I dont want to compliment or comment on the haricut, I just want to say na3iman, but its non-existant in French/English, and i cant not say anything :)) must. say. something :))

    And the ultimate, ever useful: Khalas! All my french colleagues say it now :)

  7. i would like to add the following : Naeeman (n3eeman)/ maafa( m3afa)/faraj/aamra(3amra)/ daimeh( daymeh)
    sah noum (sa7 noum)/seedeh( s3eedeh)

  8. I always wish theres: ya3teek el 3afye, which is what you say to someone who works very hard! i dont even know how to translate it

  9. Sweet article. But you forgot the most essential bridge word in Arab used even by foreigners after living even short stints in Arabic speaking countries… ya’ni يعني

  10. Having spent three years in the Arab world, I really enjoyed this article. I wanted to add a few more useful words. Mashy, or khalass mashy, means we are finished or enough, good bye, or enough already, in Egypt. In Tunisia, barsha means a lot, but is much more versitile than that, and is used frequently. Shwaya, or shwaya shwaya, or shwaya be shwaya, means a little bit, not enough, or step by step, respectively. All three of these expressions are used frequently in these countries and I was endeared to them during my time there. I hope my translating was sort of correct or at least shwaya correct. :)

  11. The “word” Mashallah is actually 3 words, breaking it back to its original Classical Arabic language: “Ma” “shaá” “Allah”: where the first word indicates “wonder and impressiveness” -in gods creation- in this case. the second word indicates the “will of god” and it means “will” or “want” it is a past tense verb. the 3 words combined together indicates impressiveness and wonder in gods creation. in short the translation would be more or less close to “That’s what God wanted” or “That is {something} of the willing of God”.
    As the word is used to express impressiveness in gods creation in living things and drive away the Evil eye; it also indicates “Legality” of a property that the owner worked so hard in achieving it, u find the word “Ma Shaá Allah” carved in a stone pattern on the front side of a house or a store house, a factory …etc. this also to give blessing to the property and to protect it from Evil eye.

    The word Ismallah is a 2 word in the classical Arabic Language: “Ism” and “Allah”, it is as if u r saying “Gods Name is written all over it” but also it is away of throwing 99 blessings over the “baby” to protect him/her, from evil eye. how so? God in Arabic has 99 Names, some of them are The merciful, The Generouse, The great, The Gentle, The Justice, The Right, the Peac, The Great, The Strong …etc so basically when we say “Ismallah” we are praying to God by all his names to protect the baby from everything, including the evil eye.

    The word Yallah, is also a 2 word in the Classical Arabic Language: “Ya” it is a calling word and also to call someones attention “ya fulan, hear me” “ya fulan, come here”… in Gods case it indicates “drawing strength to do something”.. for example when you want to stand up after sitting for a long time, you say “ya allah” which mean in this case “Oh almighty, give me strength”, in other words it is used to draw laziness away and to actually have the will to do something, by asking god to give you strength and the will to do it. this “yallah” word is basically used in everything and in every situation, when you first open your eyes in the morning you say it “oh almighty give me strength” to get up! the same goes for cooking, dressing, before you go to school, work, before doing any physical or mental action. In today’s colloquial Arabic dialects it is used also as in “Lets go”, sarcasm “come on!” “Yallah Aad!” as if you are not beleiving something someone is saying, or “yallah aad”, as in “enough, come on, lets go”… it depends on the tune of sound you say it with, and the context of the speech. but mainly it is more or less like “comeon”in english, “Vamos” in spanish, “davai” in russian, “Allez”in french… etc

  12. How can we miss Habibi and Habibti (my beloved)? Let me mention the Habibi movement. If you have ever been called Habibi or if you have ever called anyone Habibi while speaking English then you are part of the movement. The goal is to use it frequently and liberally and someday it will be accepted as an English word. If algebra and algorithm can do it, so can Habibi.

  13. So sweet, there are so many lovely things about Arabic culture (apart from geometry and poetry). Since I visted East Africa and Egypt Yallah has been one of my favorite words…but Wallah I didn’t know. Thanks for sharing. Ah Ah Ah!

  14. Lebanese/Irish-German from Austin, Texas here. This article made me laugh out loud. My dad spoke Arabic, but we spoke English at home. We do however, use those few token words same as your family it sounds, although we have one or two Texas-twisted variations. Your odyssey to learn our ancestral tongue is really cool! Thanks for sharing. :)

    1. What?????

      We don’t have words, we have phrases. You say “in shaa Allah” and we say “God willin’ an’ the crik don’t rise”, for example.

  15. I just wanna comment on what M. AAA said.

    Carving the word “Ma Shaá Allah” is actually based on the Ayah of Quraan that says “If only, when thou enteredst thy garden, thou hadst said: That which Allah willeth (will come to pass)! There is no strength save in Allah!” 18:39
    In this Ayah Allah asks us to say “Ma Shaá Allah” when we enter our places and feel how nice they are as a way to thank Him for His favors. So when we say Mashallah here we mean that this property isn’t made just because of the owner’s hard work but at first place because of Allah’s willing.
    And then people used to carve it to remind themselves and others to say “Ma Shaá Allah” before they enter.

    THE END :)

  16. I’d add ‘ ya3teek el 3afye’ or ‘ya3teeki el 3afye’. Which means God give you health. We say this when we see someone doing hard work. I pass by the cleaner in my building every day and wish there is something similar to tell her.

  17. Four out of the five words you listed in this article are derived religions in the religion and it shows how deeply integrated religions there with the spoken word, whether it’s use consciously or not.

  18. the comments added on the spirit of the article……how could we forget DAMMUH KHAFEEF / Dmmuh tqeel / TISBIh ala KHAIR…………:)

  19. Nice article. I’m Lebanese and live in England my children’s friends now use quite a few Arabic words including Wallah, yallah, khalas as they’ve heard us use them extensively. I wish we had na3iman, ya3tike el 3afyeh or terms of endearment like to2borni which is like seriously bury me? :)

  20. LOL I just said khalas earlier today to my kids, for the first time. Learned the word from a fiction book and I was like, that is an awesome word, I need that! Love its snappy sound.

    All the suggestions here are words I’d love to learn. Especially ya3teek el 3afye, as iman described it, something gracious to say to a person who is hard at work instead of pretending they don’t exist.
    Can someone volunteer post definitions for the ones in the comments? Maybe Deric you’d like to plug it in a Part II post?

  21. Lol, inshalah is also used by parents when you ask something and they won’t “actually do it”
    “Mama can I go to my friends house on Friday?”
    “Don’t you have an exam?”
    “Yes.”
    “Then no.”
    ” But if I finish early–”
    “Ok ok, inshallah”
    AKA=NEVER :P

  22. InshAllah has no uncertainty built into it. the reason it used is that only God/Allah can know the future. the one using it is agreeing to do or not do certain thing but it all depends on if it’s written for him/her to do or not do it.

  23. I and a lot of my friends use alhamdulillah. How are you feeling? Alhamdulillah, fine. How is your business going? Alhamdulillah, going well.

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