A Yemeni Thesaurus

Reviewed by Daniel Martin Varisco

Yemen Update 25(1989):15-16

[Note: printing errors from the printed version have been corrected. Transliteration does not includes dots under letters.]

al-Himyarî, 'Îsâ ibn Ibrâhîm al-Rab'î al-Wuhâzî ,Nizâm al-gharîb fî al-lugha, Damascus, 1980.

The Arabic language is far more expansive and expressive than any single lexicon can communicate, despite the massive length of classical dictionaries such as Lisân al-‘Arab of Ibn Manzûr or Tâj al-‘Arûs of the Yemeni al-Zabîdî. One of the more interesting lexicographical genres is a type of thesaurus where groups of closely related terms are discussed in sequence. The inestimable value of a work of this sort is that it places at your fingertips a wide variety of terminology on the same subject or of a particular type.

The grandest thesaurus in Arabic is no doubt the encyclopedic effort of Ibn Sîda, whose early 11th century A.D. text, al-Mukhkhassas is virtually exhaustive. Another Roget of the Arabs was Ibn Qutayba, who put together a shorter collection of words a learned man should know; it is a sort of Barnes and Noble guide to adab. This early work of Ibn Qutayba (9th century A.D.) had a profound impact on generations of later scholars. To this genre may now be added another medieval Arabic thesaurus written by a Yemeni scholar named ‘Îsâ ibn Ibrâhîm al-Rab'î al-Wuhâzî al-Himyarî (died A.H. 480/A.D. 1086-7)

Al Himyari's text is called The Arrangement of the Uncommon in Language (Nizâm al-gharîb fî al-lugha) and comprises 102 chapters on a wide variety of subjects. There is literally something for everyone, as will be noted in the contents described below. A first edition was published in a nicely printed, footnoted text from Damascus in 1980; this was edited by the indomitable Yemeni bibliophile Muhammad ‘Alî al-Akwa‘. Al-Akwa‘ provides a brief introduction to the text and author in his rambling style. The edition is based on a ms. which is said to date from the 7th century A.H. A second edition has mysteriously appeared in 1987 and is published by the Mu'assasa al-Kutub al-Thaqâfiyya (Beirut?). It is noted as a second edition, but the editor is not indicated nor is there any reference to al-Akwa‘. The text is virtually identical to the first, but there are a number of unexplained modifications. Unfortunately there are no footnotes, although the terms are mercifully voweled and well-indexed. One can only assume that this second edition has been lifted from the first. Both, however, have been available recently in Yemeni bookstores.

The best description of the text is to summarize the chapter headings as they appear: ® Parts of the Human Body, ® Blows to the Body, ® Reason and Intelligence, ® Eloquence, ® Stupidity and Feebleness, ® Beauty, ® Ugliness, ® Height, ® Shortness, ® Excellent Character, ® Bad Character, ® Love, ® Hatred and Enmity, ® Pride, ® Generosity and Kindness, ® Names of the Indwelling Spirit, ® Youth, ® Old Age, ® Strength and Intensity, ® Weakness, ® Stock, ® Purity, ® Character, ® Nearness, ® Farness®, ® Prosperity and Misery, ® Wealth and Poverty, ® Surfeit and Hunger, ® Quenched Thirst and Thirst, ® Wine, ® Honey, ® Milk, ® Meat, ® Names of Women and their Description, ® What is Disgusting about Women's Bodies and their Characteristics, ® Women's Vulva, ® Jewelry, ® Gold and Silver, ® Clothing, ® Pleasant Scents, ® Residences, ® Buildings, ® Tents, ® Courage, ® Cowardice, ® Swords, ® Lances, ® Armor, ® Bows and Arrows, ® War, ® Military, ® Groups, ® Sounds, ® Sounds of Animals, ® Colors, ® Horses&emdash;their Description and Characteristics, ® Donkeys, ® Revenge, ® Invalid Revenge, ® Camels, ® Characteristics of Camels, ® Saddles and Harnesses, ® Mange, ® Travel by Camel, ® Sleep, ® Roads, ® Eating, ® Ibex, ® Ostrich, ® Wild Donkey, ® Birds of Prey, ® Sheep and Goat, ® Lions, ® Wolves, ® Hyenas, ® Young of Animals, ® Breasts of Animals, ® Snakes, ® Locusts, ® Sun, ® Moon, ® Darkness, ® Shadow, ® Clouds and Rain, ® Winds, ® Fertility and Sterility, ® Sea, ® Wells and Buckets, ® Date Palms, ® Plants and Pasture, ® Aromatic Plants, ® Deserts, ® Mountains, ® Soil, ® Time Periods, ® Death and Graves, ® Great Matters, ® Collections, ® Things the Arabs refer to in the Dual.

If you are looking for something abstruse, then you will not be disappointed in this highly eclectic work. For instance, al-Himyari lets you know which term to use for describing sexual activity for various kinds of animals. What the male camel does to the female is jafara (verb); the ram does it as rabada; wild animals of prey do it as safada; the bull does qara‘a and the stallion does ka'ma. The camel, of course, is known for his taraqa and the donkey for bakâ. So much for mounting tension in medieval literature. By the way, a woman with a very fat midriff is known as ‘arakaka. Al-Himyarî is not the most liberated writer and offers few insulting terms that could be directed at men. Indeed his best interests can be summed up by one of the duals discussed at the end of the book. In case you did not know, food and procreation are called atyabân.

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