Filed under words

A story of a word

I got an e-mail yesterday inquiring about the spelling of a word that I used in a poem that will be published this fall. I had written “galabiyya”Image of galabiyya in reference to the robe-like garb that some Islamic men wear. My editor, doing due diligence found spellings of “galabeya” and “jalabiya.” 

I honestly didn’t even remember using the word in the poem (it’s been over a year since I originally submitted the poem and longer still since I wrote the first draft—what’s more I’ve since retired the notebook where I wrote that first draft along with any notes and would be hard pressed to find it at the moment). My best guess is that I googled something like “What is the name for the robe that some Islamic men wear?” and went with the first result that came up with a picture that corresponded to what I was thinking. (I almost wonder whether I really wanted was taqiyah, the skullcap that some Muslims wear).

Now the fun part of all this is that Arabic is, of course, written in the Arabic alphabet and any transliteration of Arabic to English is going to be imperfect. As an added bonus, the Arabic word, جلابية will be transliterated differently from Egyptian Arabic than other North-African dialects because ج which is the first letter is pronounced g in Egypt but j (or dj) elsewhere.

Googling my spelling turned up the Wikipedia article which offered three different spellings (one in the title and body and two more in the introduction), none of which were my spelling: “Jalabiya,” “galabeya” and “jellabiya.”

Then I thought, what does my dictionary have? I dug into the dictionary on my computer and found:

djel·la·bajəˈläbə | (also djellabah or jellabanoun a loose hooded cloak, typically woolen, of a kind traditionally worn by ArabsORIGINearly 19th century: from Moroccan Arabic jellābajellābiyya.

(As an aside, despite the etymology given here, Wikipedia distinguishes between Djellaba and Jellabiya.)

Then I thought what about Wiktionary? Unlike Wikipedia, it doesn’t make the distinction between the two robes and unlike the dictionary on my Mac it leaves out the hood, but it is generous in offering twenty-four spellings, none of which is my original!

In the end I decided to go with “Jalabiya.” I’d seen it used in enough different sources and the poem really needed the extra syllable so the dictionary headword forms weren’t workable. 

n + 7

Thank you for giving us the oppressor to consider your workbook. We regret that we are unable to carry it in the maggot.

Warmest regards,

The Educations.


Learning about my language use from a word cloud

I happened to notice the picture below on the desktop of my MacBook:

Screen Shot 2012 09 29 at 15 12 42

Glancing over the image, there are some obvious things that can be noted. The two biggest words are the name of my protagonist and his antagonist’s title. There’s an assortment of other character names and descriptive terms that all feel appropriate for the work. Then there are some words that appear fairly largely in her that make me a bit concerned: “felt”, “looked”, “know”, “just”, “walked”. I can see, just from looking at this, some things to watch out for in my writing to make it stronger.



I happened in one day to come across the words “susurrus” and “susurrate” in two different books (Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead and Tom McCarthy’s C). Finding the coincidence delightful, I went home and told my wife about the new word(s) I had learned.

“Ahh, sussurate,” she whispered. It took me a while to realise that my wife, the non-native English speaker, knew a word I had just learned. Silly me, forgetting that all these wonderfully obscure Latinate words in English are basic vocabulary in Spanish.


I’m always conscious of the words that appear in the books I read, looking for those words which I don’t know. I’ve had the word “divagate” in my list of interesting words for a while, long enough that I forget where it came from. I found two definitions for the word. A literal meaning of “to wander or drift about” and a more figurative meaning of “to ramble or digress.” I suspect that it was the latter term that I found this word meaning in my reading, but since my list of words omits their sources (an error I’ll need to correct), I can’t say for certain.


I’m always on the lookout for new words, opportunities to push the boundaries of my vocabulary, so when I encountered the word “girning” in an A. S. Byatt short story, I had to make a note of this one. In the context, it was a whining or complaining sound (made, in this case by a dog), and was something that I found to be a familiar concept, having a dog who is apt to girn. But there’s another meaning to this as well: To girn also means to make faces and “girning” can refer to a competition in which the competitors make silly faces while framed by a horse collar. It seems a wonderful sort of diversion.