Bill Casselman

Increase your knowledge of English words like gypsy, derived from the country name Egypt

At the Wording Desk

The Many Names of Egypt
جمهورية مصر العربية
Gumhūriyyat Miṣr al-‘Arabiyyah
in English: The Arabic Republic of Egypt

The modern Arabic name for Egypt, shown above, is Misr, pronounced in English something like mees’err. In street Arabic, the colloquial pronunciation is mas-er.

More fanatic anti-Semitic Islamists are always upset to learn that Misr may derive from the biblical Hebrew name for Egypt, Mizraim. In Hebrew מִצְרַיִם / מִצְרָיִם , the modern Hebrew pronunciation is ‘mitsRAyim’ or Tiberian Hebrew ‘misRAyim.’ The Hebrew noun suffix –ayim indicates nouns that come in pairs or twos or doubles and so are declined with what is called a dual ending. This dual ending in the ancient Hebrew name for Egypt may refer to the two Egypts of antiquity, Upper Egypt and Lower Egypt.

The root is still kicking around in Hebrew. The brilliant Israeli designer Isaac Mizrahi bears a surname that indicates an ancestor came from a Jewish community east of Israel. Mizrahim מזרחים are ‘eastern’ Jews descended from Jewish enclaves mostly in the Arab world, from the Middle East, from North Africa, and even the Caucasus. El-mizrach means ‘the East’ in modern Hebrew.

But this name for the land of the Nile appears to be much older than Hebrew and may have been borrowed into Hebrew. In Assyrian and Babylonian records, Egypt is Musur and Musri. In the Amarna tablets written in Akkadian cuneiform, a Semitic language, in the 1340s BCE, Egypt is called Misri.

It may also derive from an Egyptian hieroglyphic word md-r, an ancient local name for the Nile lands.


What is an Endonym?
An endonym or autonym, on the other hand, from the Greek root words ἔνδον, éndon, "within" or αὐτο-, auto-, "self" and ὄνομα, ónoma, "name", is given by members of a particular ethnolinguistic group to the group itself, its language or dialect, or its homeland or a specific place within it.

Whence did the Term Egypt Arise?
 The word Egypt arose because Greeks could not pronounce one of the ancient Egyptian phrases signifying Egypt and that phrase was Hout-ak Ptah ‘house of the Ka of Ptah.’ Now that is not as silly as it might sound to modern English ears. The ka was part of ancient Egyptian religion. In the time of the Pharoahs, they believed a human soul was made up of five parts: the Ren, the Ba, the Ka, the Sheut, and the Ib. Mixed together with a little shaved lamb and pepper sauce, they made a zesty shawarma. Okay, I’m just kidding. The Ka was one’s spiritual essence. It dwelt in a living body. After death, the ka left for a little R&R at a good resort in the desert.

So who was Ptah then? Yes, he sounds like the god of spitting. But Ptah was one of the earliest gods of ancient Egypt. He got in first and he got in big time! One of the names of the country in the Pharoanic era was Hout—ak Ptah, for their priests liked to think that the entire delta was not only the gift of the Nile but also a temple of Ptah.

However, visiting Greeks had a great deal of trouble with some of the gutturals in ancient Egyptian (as we know from stumblebum attempts by Greeks at transliteration of Egyptian names). The initial h and the final h in the name were guttural rough breathings. The Greeks could not pronounce them properly, so they left them out. What the Greeks got out of listening to Egyptians saying Hout-ak Ptah was Aiguptos, first as a name for the River Nile and then as the Greek word for Egypt. When the Romans showed up a little later in history, checking out winter wheat exports to make bread for Romans, they borrowed the Greek term as Aegyptus. That eventually produced our word Egypt, after a trip through French. Middle English Egipcian < from Old French egipcien < from Egipte Egyptian < from Latin Aegyptus < from Greek Aiguptos.

Other Ancient Names for the Land of the Nile
The ancient Hebrew name Mizraim was probably a translation of the earliest hieroglyphic name we know for Egypt, tawy ‘the two lands.’


Early in Egyptian history, during the Old Kingdom the land was referred to as Kemet, from hieroglyphic /kmt/ ‘black land’ presumably referring to the rich soil of the Nile Delta and valley. It was also called deshret ‘dshrt’ ‘red land.’ Do not mistake that hieroglyphic word as the source of our English word desert. It is tempting but not true.

Plutarch, a Greek historian (CE 46- 120), uses Χημία as a name for Egypt, which may stem from one name the ancient Egyptians called their country, namely Kmt, probably pronounced Kemet, literally ‘black land’ from the Egyptian hieroglyphic kem ‘black,’ referring to the Nile Valley’s rich, dark soil, in contrast to the much paler desert sand.

The Slang Term Gypsy Stems from the Word Egyptian
English racists thought gypsies were Egyptian. After all they were swarthy wogs, weren’t they? As the Oxford English Dictionary succinctly explains it: “The early form gipcyan is aphetic for E GYPTIAN…”

Gipsy is common in the singular. Gypsies as a plural spelling, is still seen too. The wandering tribe are actually of Hindu origin and their language, Romany, is a dialect of Hindi massively altered by their travels and with additional words they have picked up from many Indo-European languages. The words for gipsy in other European languages are also variants of Egyptian, for example German Zigeuner, French gitan (think of bad cigarettes) and tsigane [think of wonderful French herbal tea), Spanish gitano, Russian цыган, цыганка ‘tsigan, tsiganka,’ and modern Greek γύφτος ‘geeptos.’

                                                    Some  hieroglyphics

Coptic comes from Egypt word too
The Coptic people are Christians of Egypt and Coptic also names the principal Christian church of Ethiopia. Almost as revenge upon the Greeks who mangled the ancient Egyptian word for Egypt in Aiguptos, when the Arabs invaded and conquered Egypt, the Arabs could not pronounce easily the then Greek name of the country and they came up with Copti. As Muslims took over Egypt, Copti came to be applied by the Arabs to the few remaining Christians.

And now let us depart, in the words of the pop song, let’s blow this pyramid stand and ‘walk like an Egyptian’ — you know, the duck-wristed Tut two-step.

           Some alphabetic equivalents of hieroglyphic symbols

Bill Casselman, July 06, 2017

Text Copyright 2017 by William Gordon Casselman