On the etymology of شرموطة ‹šarmūṭa›

شرموطة ‹šarmūṭa› is one of the most taboo curse words in the Arabic language. It means ‘whore,’ but it is much more potent as an insult. Speaking from personal experience, I very rarely hear it.

Linguistically, it has an unusual structure for an Arabic word. Its root is composed of four consonants š-r-m-ṭ, while most roots are composed of three. Its word pattern |C₁aC₂C₃ūC₄a| is also relatively rare. Perhaps because of how taboo and structurally unusual it is, ‹šarmūṭa› has been the subject of some highly imaginative and very wrong etymology theories.

The entry in the English Wiktionary claims, “Most Arab linguists agree that it is of non-Semitic origin.” The Arabic Wiktionary entry, after giving the correct explanation, provides the most common folk etymology: that it comes from the French charmante, meaning “charming, delightful.” The story is that during the colonial period, French soldiers would call Arab girls who flirted with them charmante. The local population, who could not pronounce it correctly, mistook the word for something dirty given the improper behavior of these women and therefore interpreted it as ‘whore.’

The Arabic Wiki entry goes on to claim that charmante is also the origin of Sharm, as in Sharm el Sheikh, the Egyptian resort town. That factoid is indisputably false because “sharm” is a perfectly ordinary Arabic word meaning “bay.” Even leaving that aside, there is no plausible explanation for how charmante — with the nasal /ɑ̃/ vowel in the second syllable — became ‹šarmūṭa› with a long /uː/ vowel. Compare the Arabic colloquial word for “elevator” ‹aṣansēr›, which is a direct borrowing from French ascenseur. The en of the second syllable — identical in pronunciation to the an in charmante — does not transform into a long /uː/ vowel, even among non-French-literate Arabic speakers. The charmante explanation is nonsense, most likely the result of someone noticing that it sounds somewhat similar to ‹šarmūṭa› and deciding that both words must have a common (French) origin.

The actual etymology is so fantastically convoluted that the charmante theory is almost an insult by comparison. The original root of ‹šarmūṭa› is actually triliteral š-r-ṭ, which means ‘slice, tear off.’ Recall from my post on Semitic languages that Arabic, being a Semitic language, has a root-pattern system of word formation. Basic verbs are formed with the pattern C₁aC₂aC₃-; applying the root š-r-ṭ to this pattern results in ‹šaraṭ-› ‘to slice, tear off.’ The passive participle of that verb form has the pattern maC₁C₂ūC₃-, and the resulting word is ‹mašrūṭ-›, meaning ‘sliced, torn off.’ At some point, through a type of sound change called metathesis¹, where the sounds of a word are rearranged, ‹mašrūṭ-› became ‹šarmūṭ-›.

In Arabic, passive participles are adjectives, and adjectives can be nouns. So ‹mašrūṭ-›/‹šarmūṭ-› meant not only ‘sliced, torn off’ but also ‘a thing that is sliced or torn off.’ The feminine form of this word ‹šarmūṭa› came to mean ‘rag’ (as in a torn piece of cloth), specifically one used to wipe up dirt². By metaphor, this word then morphed into an insult against women. Calling a woman a ‹šarmūṭa› was saying that she was as “dirty” (i.e. in terms of morals and reputation) as a dish rag. Thus was born one of the worst insults in the Arabic language.

‹šarmūṭa› is not French nor Ancient Egyptian as someone hilariously tried to claim. No, it is a purely Arabic word, although one with a very exceptional journey.


¹ This rearranging of sounds happens in all languages. For example, in English, “aks” is a nonstandard variant of the word “ask”, both of which forms go back to Anglo-Saxon; and in Spanish, milagro ”miracle” comes from Latin miraculum.

² A Saudi twitter user reports that in certain parts of Saudi Arabia, the word for rag is ‹šamṭūr›, which is a metathesis of the already metathetic ‹šarmūṭ›! This second metathesis may well have resulted from a need to separate the original meaning of the word from the now vulgar usage.

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7 comments

  1. Muhanad (@MuhanadRa)

    Salutes on the great post, To confirm your conclusion I’d like to add that in Sudanese cuisine there is a dish that’s is called ملاح شرموط, and it’s called so because the meat is left in the Sun to يتشرمط. the best description that I can think off in MSA is لحمة مفرومة مجففة.

      • Bechir Lamine

        This is probably from Latin salimuria (salt water, a pickling solution). You find it in Andalusian Arabic as سلامورة or موري and in all Maghrebi dialects as شرمولة. I had no idea it had reached Sudan

  2. valery osipov

    This is an interesting version. I can only add this. In Russian prostitute also referred to the word “litter”, ie “a rag on which sleep.” It should be borne in mind that the first meaning of the word SHARMUTA – a “rag” and only the second – “prostitute.”
    Arabic root of the SH-R-M-T means “to tear to shreds the fabric”
    I have a version of the origin of the Arabic word KAHBA with the same meaning as the word SHARMUTA.
    I wish you success!

  3. valery osipov

    This is an interesting version. I can only add that Arabic root SH-R-M-T means “to tear the fabric to shreds “. It should be borne in mind that the first meaning of the word SHARMUTA is rag and only the second – “prostitute.”

    In Russian a prostitute also is called PODSTILKA bedding or litter meaning
    “the sheet that are used on a bed under the body” or “thing that an animal uses to make its bed”.
    I have my own version of the origin of the Arabic word QAHBA with the same meaning as the word SHARMUTA.
    I wish you success!

  4. Bechir Lamine

    In Tunisia, we use the word shirmeeTa and it means a rag. It doesn’t have the offensive meaning of prostitute. About a hyperactive child we would say “baash ina77i mis-smaa shirmeeTa” (he’s about to tear a rag off the sky)

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