Falafel - Etymology

Etymology

The word falafel can refer to the fritters themselves or to sandwiches filled with them. Some sources trace the name to the Arabic word falāfil (فلافل), the plural of filfil (فلفل), meaning "pepper"—probably from the Sanskrit word pippalī (पिप्पली), meaning "long pepper". A Coptic origin has recently been proposed from Pha La Phel "Φα Λα Φελ" 'of many beans'. However, the locus of the word's use is in the Levant rather than Egypt (where falafel are generally known as ta'amiya (Egyptian Arabic: طعمية), and in fact an etymology from internal Levantine sources is possible. Levantine colloquial Arabic falāfil is grammatically a mass noun that must be counted with the word حبة "grain, piece" (as the English word bread must be counted with loaf or slice). It may represent a frozen plural of an earlier unattested *filfal, from Aramaic pilpāl, "small round thing, peppercorn," derived from palpēl, "to be round, roll". Thus in origin, falafel would be "rollers, little balls." It its vocabulary, grammar, and phonology, the colloquial Arabic of the Levant reflects the deep influence of Aramaic, the language from which the population of the Levant shifted after the Muslim conquest of Syria in 634-638. In this way, an Aramaic origin for the colloquial term is not problematic, although the late date of attestation of the word in Arabic renders it somewhat tentative--a problem from which the proposed Coptic etymology, also invoking an unattested Coptic phrase, suffers from in equal measure. (In connection with the proposed origin of falafel in Lenten practices of the Copts, it should be remembered that since the days of the Apostles, the Levant to this day has a very large Aramaic-speaking, and later Arabic-speaking, Christian population.) The Arabic word falāfil has been borrowed into many other languages and spread around the rest of the world as the general name for this food. In English, it is first attested in 1941.

Falafel is known as ta'amiya (Egyptian Arabic: طعمية ṭaʿmiyya, ) in Egypt, with the exception of Alexandria. The word is derived from a diminutive form of the Arabic word ṭaʻām (طعام, "food"); the particular form indicates "a unit" of the given root in this case Ṭ-ʕ-M (ط ع م, having to do with taste and food), thus meaning "a little piece of food" or "small tasty thing".

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