Sunday, March 13, 2016


I realized that in my recent post on atar and asher, I left out an interesting cognate. I quoted Klein's etymology for the word osher אושר - "happiness":

Perhaps related to Ugaritic ushr (= happiness), Arabic yasara (= was easy), yassara ( =made easy, prospered)

The English word "hazard" may well derive from that same Arabic yasara. How so?

Klein himself does not make the connection. In his Comprehensive Etymological Dictionary of the English Language, he has the following entry for "hazard":
1) a game played with dice; 2) chance; 3) risk. Old French (= French) hasard, from Spanish azar, 'unfortunate throw at dice, unforeseen accident', usually derived from Arabic al-zahr (pronounced az-zahr), 'the die'. This derivation is rightly doubted by most lexicographers (see e.g. Devic's Supplement to Littre's Dictionnaire de la langue francaise, s.v. hasard, and Skeat's Etymological Dictionary, s.v. hazard), owing to the fact that the word zahr does not occur in the dictionaries of Classical Arabic. According to my opinion Spanish azar derives from Arabic yasara, 'he played at dice'; z is the regular Spanish equivalent of Arabic s. The d in Old French hasard (whence English hazard) is due to a confusion of the ending -ar with suffix -ard.

So we see here that the Arabic word yasara can mean both "was easy" (or prospered) and "played at dice." What possible connection could there be between the two?

In the book Frequently Asked Questions in Islamic Finance, they make the following suggestion, while discussing the cognate game "maisir":
Yasara: affluence because maisir brings about profit;
Yusr: convenience, ease. Maisir is so termed because it is a means of making money without toil and exertion

(For further discussion of the Arabic root, see this post).

So we have an interesting development here. In Arabic, the games of dice and maisir were associated with ease - the element of chance provided an easy way of making money (and the echo of the Hebrew word osher can still be heard). But when the word entered European languages, it took a darker turn. Hazard went from a game of chance, to chance in general, to specifically a chance of harm or risk. I guess it all depends on how the die falls...

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