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Pronunciation RealAudio

alembic (uh-LEM-bik) noun

1. An apparatus formerly used in distilling substances.

2. Something that refines, purifies, or transforms.

[From Middle English alambic, from Old French, from Medieval Latin alembicus, from Arabic al-anbiq, from al (the) + anbiq (still), from Greek ambix (cup).]

"Melville transforms the shaggy minutiae of life and its myriad characters (whether Hawthorne, Malcolm, a besieged wife or a shipmate) into an alembic of wishes, conflicts and disappointments that, taken together, reflect him, a mysterious, roiling, poignant writer alive, painfully alive, in every phrase he wrote." Brenda Wineapple, Melville at Sea, The Nation (New York), May 20, 2002.

What do a magazine and an albatross have in common with algebra and lute? They all come to us from Arabic. As in other Semitic languages, Arabic words are based on three-consonant roots. This three-letter structure provides the general concept, and vowels impart specific meaning. For example, the triplet k-t-b refers to writing. With the addition of vowels it can morph into kitab (book), katib (writer, clerk), kutub (books), kataba (he wrote), etc.

Along the same lines, there is the consonant cluster s-l-m that shows up in words indicating ideas of submission, peace, etc. Some of the words employing this triplet are Islam (surrender to God's will), Muslim (one who submits), salaam (peace), etc. Whatever God we follow, may we all know that no God would condone hurting others.

This week's AWAD looks at more words from Arabic. Salaam! -Anu


We would often be ashamed of our finest actions if the world understood all the motives which produced them. -Duc de La Rochefoucauld, writer (1613-1680)

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