Do carat and karat have the same origin?

Is it correct to say that carat derives from the Italian carato, while karat derives from the from Arabic ḳīrāṭ? Is it possible that both words derive from Italian carato, but one is written with a k to avoid confusion with the other?

  • Are they even different words? I thought they were different spellings of the same word… Feb 26 '11 at 13:35
  • 1
    In American English, carat and karat have different meaning. In British English, karat is an alternative spelling of carat.
    – apaderno
    Feb 26 '11 at 13:42
  • What different meanings do they have in AE?
    – Pekka
    Feb 26 '11 at 13:49
  • In American English, karat is a measure of the purity of the gold, where the pure gold is 24 karats. Carat is a unit of weight for precious stones (Reference: the New Oxford American Dictionary.)
    – apaderno
    Feb 26 '11 at 13:54

There's essentially one word, with two meanings and two spellings. Wikipedia has articles at Carat (purity) and Carat (mass). As a unit of mass, one carat (used for gemstones) is 200 milligrams, and as a measure of purity, n-carat gold (n≤24) is n/24 gold by weight. (12-carat gold is 50% gold, etc.) The spellings carat and karat are spelling variants of the same term. In America, a convention has been adopted to use the spelling carat for mass, and karat for purity. While this is a very fine convention to avoid confusion between the two meanings, does this make them two different words?

Etymologically, the Online Etymology Dictionary says

mid-15c., from M.Fr. carat "measure of the fineness of gold" (14c.), from It. carato, from Arabic qirat "pod, husk, weight of 4 grains," from Gk. keration "carob seed," lit. "little horn" dim. of keras "horn." Carob beans were a standard for weighing small quantities. As a measure of diamond weight, from 1570s. The Gk. measure was the equivalent of the Roman siliqua, which was one-twentyfourth of a golden solidus of Constantine; hence the word took on a sense of "a proportion of one twentyfourth" and became a measure of gold purity (1550s). Eighteen carat gold is eighteen parts gold, six parts alloy. It is unlikely that the classical carat was ever a measure of weight for gold.


variant of carat (q.v.). In U.S., karat is used for "proportion of fine gold in an alloy" and carat for "weight of a precious stone."

So both the weight meaning and the 1/24th meaning come from Greco-Roman times (via Arabic, Italian, Middle French, in that order).

The Wikipedia sections Carat (purity)#Derivation and Carat (mass)#Etymology agree: once upon a time, carob seeds, because of their reputation for uniform weight, were used as measures of weight. This measure was roughly 1/24th of another unit, so the purity measure arose of it. There was no confusion because as weight, carat was probably never used for gold (and is today only used for diamonds, pearls, other gemstones).


Wiktionary defines:


Carat: Middle French carat, from Italian carato, from Arabic قيراط (qirāṭ, “husk”), from Ancient Greek κεράτιον (keration, “carob seed”), diminutive form of κέρας (keras, “horn”).

Karat: From Middle English, from Middle French carat, from Medieval Latin carratus.

So I think they both have the same word origin, but I couldn't find a source to report the word origin is from Italy. ldoce lists the same origin for both. Is it Greek or Arabic?

According to dehkhoda (the most reliable Persian dictionary) the word qirāṭ was borrowed by Greeks (keration) from Arabic and it's been reported by another book of that time (نقودالعربیه) the same way. It has been used long before in many parts of the Arab territories.

There are some Persian poems (and for sure some Arabic) using the original form of word, back in 1000 years ago.

Note: ldoce defines karat an American Spelling of carat and makes no differences in meaning.


The NOAD lists the etymology of both spellings thus:

ORIGIN late Middle English (sense 2) : from French, from Italian carato, from Arabic ḳīrāṭ (a unit of weight), from Greek keration ‘fruit of the carob’ (also denoting a unit of weight), diminutive of keras ‘horn,’ with reference to the elongated seedpod of the carob.

  • I expanded the question to make clear what I was asking. I apologize I didn't correctly write the question.
    – apaderno
    Feb 26 '11 at 13:50
  • @kiamlaluno: The derivation chain cited seems to state pretty clearly that the Italian is derived from the Arabic in this case.
    – Robusto
    Feb 26 '11 at 13:52
  • That is clear. What I am asking is something else.
    – apaderno
    Feb 26 '11 at 13:59
  • 2
    @kiamlaluno: The NOAD clearly states that carat is a chiefly British spelling of karat. American makes a distinction between meanings (karat for gold, carat for diamonds, etc.), but it should be clear from that the distinction is not made to avoid confusion between Italian and Arabic derivations but to express differences between the substances being measured.
    – Robusto
    Feb 26 '11 at 14:25

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