The spread of Islamic culture into Europe in the Middle Ages adorned western languages with an enduring selection of unusually elegant words pertaining to science and nature. From Spain and Portugal, which had direct contact with Arabic speakers, words such as algebra and alkali entered the scientific language of Medieval Latin. These words were then easily adopted by English, whose vocabulary had already been substantially Latinised by the influence of French in the period following the Norman conquest.
The Arabic particle al was vigorously involved in this southern European linguistic churning. It darted around as a particle would in a reactor, variously fusing with alien words, and separating from familiar ones. Thus English has ended up with both kohl and alcohol from one Arabic root, and elsewhere a floating al fused with a Greek word to produce the English alchemy alongside chemistry.
Far greater subtlety, however, is at work in many of the more curious adventures of al and their outcomes. The modern English word apricot comes from the French abricot. But before this, Shakespeare has the gardener in Richard II say, in one of the more apocalyptic references to fruit, “Go, bind thou up yon dangling apricocks, which, like unruly children, make their sire stoop with oppression of their prodigal weight.” Shakespeare’s variant spelling reflects the Spanish albaricoque, which is itself a corrupted form of an Arabic al-barquq – which, of course, is not actually Arabic. It is an Arabic rendering of (possibly a Middle Greek form of) the Latin praecoquus, meaning ‘early-ripe’, with the prefix al. Now, not all apricots ripen precociously, and in antiquity they were referred to by names which reflected not their ripening but where they were grown – armeniaca or damasco. So why are they all now known as apricots? It is an antique botanical mystery.
So much for apricots. The history of aubergine is frankly ludicrous. To the European ear, it suggests a cosy hostel in France – auberge – or fresh hills in Germany – bergen. That is only because our Arabic friend al has attached himself to a foreign word again. Aubergine is the English rendering of Arabic al-badinjan, which comes from Persian badingan. But the Persian comes from the Sanskrit vatimgana (modern Hindi baingana), from Sanskrit va (meaning blow) which is cognate with Latin ventus and English wind and likewise in other languages including Russian. This is a very specific word in Sanskrit with no application other than to the name of this vegetable – and it basically means something that causes flatulence. Al has gracefully obscured the elemental associations of this unfortunately named food.