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This one has been bugging me for a while. The first time I discovered that the word for graves in Arabic was مَقَابِر‎ (maqābir), it seemed the obvious source or indirect source of macabre, but apparently not.

According to Wiktionary

[Macabre] is borrowed from French macabre, whose etymology is uncertain. Most commonly believed to be from corruption of the biblical name Maccabees; compare French danse macabre, presumably from Latin Chorea Machabaeorum. Possibly from Spanish macabro, from Arabic مَقَابِر‎ (maqābir, “tombs, cemeteries”), plural of مَقْبَرَة‎ (maqbara) or مَقْبُرَة‎ (maqbura) or of مَقْبَر‎ (maqbar), but the Arabic etymology is rejected by Romance linguists.

Etymonline doesn't even mention the Arabic similarities.

The most accepted version seems to be (etymonline) "that it came into English from the French from Old French (danse) Macabré "(dance) of Death"". But the origins of the dans macabré are not known either.

Does anyone know why an ultimate Arabic derivation via either the Spanish macabro or the French macabré was ruled out by linguists considering that neither of these has a known source?

  • 1
    You can safely ignore the weasel words, until they are sourced. Asking on the talk page for a reference, and if nobody answered removing the note as unfounded should draw attention to it. WP also has WP:Reference_Desk for such issues. – vectory May 20 at 16:15
  • Wiktionary is not WP. WT has the Ety Scriptorium for such questions, but there is already a reference that you didn't even cite and that I thus won't bother reading you. Also try fr.wt – vectory May 20 at 16:20
  • @vectory it looks like the link to the reference is broken, and French wiktionary is no more definite than English (though my French isn't good enough to follow all the nuances. – Chris H May 20 at 18:28
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    They link a French dict that, if I'm not mistaken, says they reject the Arabic hypothesis, because it's unfounded, and they reference the notion, but thir citation style is so terse that I didn't follow through. Anyhow fr.wt is more elaborate, and they contrast Macabee and maqbara, whereas I think you implied those be connected. I don't know which is which, so, good luck. Try internet archive for the broken link. – vectory May 20 at 18:56
  • The assumption that "macabre" is related to Arabic "maqaabir" (graves; graveyard) is no more than folk etymology, very likely made plausible by the tonal and thematic similarities between the two words. "Macabre", adopted as an _adjective_ from French in mid-19th century, comes from _danse macabre_, "macabre" being a scribal error for the Early Modern French adjectival phrase: "danse macabre" (avec un accent aigu). – user240918 May 20 at 19:25
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The Arabic root was ruled out for a lack of evidence. Oxford English Dictionary, in Macabre, n.1:

There is no evidence to support the theory that the word derives from Arabic maqābir, plural of maqbara cemetery (Moroccan colloquial Arabic məqāber, plural of məqebra tomb), or from Syriac meqabberēy gravediggers.

The first instance of the word Macabre is in Jean le Fèvre's poem Respit de la Mort. Here is how the word appears in a 14th century manuscript, Francais 994.

Je fis de macabre la dance (close-up on image from Martin Hagstrøm)

(I have done the dance of macabre)

Where does Jean's word Macabre come from? That is difficult to determine. That said, we have some orthographic evidence that it could be based on Maccabee. The Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé (TLFi) has a long entry about Macabre that describes in greater detail both the Arabic and Maccabees hypotheses. (Note: for the full entry one can access the main site, enter, search for "Macabre," and find the entry. For ease of access I also share this link to a screencap of the full entry. Be sure to give TLFi due credit.) I translate with the help of Google Translate:

Orig. controversée (voir FEW, t. 6, 1, pp. 2a-3a). Les étymol. orientales qui ont été proposées (ar. maqbara, maqbura, plur.; «cimetière», v. VAN PRAET cité par CHAMPOLLION-FIGEAC, op. cit., pp. 367-368; syriaque meqabberêy, meqabr ey «fossoyeurs», v. Fr. mod. t. 15, pp. 96-98 et Romania t. 71, pp. 408-412) manquant de fondement, il semble préférable de voir en Macabré (lu à tort macabre au XIXe s., cf. 1811, supra et Romania t. 18, p. 513) une var. du nom propre d'orig. biblique Macchabée (cf. p. ex. ca 1190, GUI DE CAMBRAI, Vengement Alixandre, éd. B. Edwards, p. 96, 1748 [var. 2e moitié XIIIe s.]: Judas Macabrés; ca 1200, 2e Continuation de Perceval, éd. W. Roach, t. 4, p. 500, 32278 [var. XIIIe s.]: judas macabre).

(Orig. controversial (see FEW, t. 6, 1, pp. 2a-3a). The Oriental etymologies that have been proposed (ar. maqbara, maqbura, plur.; "cemetery", v. VAN PRAET quoted by CHAMPOLLION-FIGEAC, op. cit., pp. 367-368; and Syrian meqabberêy, meqabr ey "gravediggers", v. Fr. mod. t. 15, pp. 96-98 and Romania t. 71, pp. 408-412), lacking foundation, it seems preferable to see Macabré (wrongly read macabre in the 19th century, see 1811, supra et Romania t. 18, p..513) as a variation of the proper name of the original Biblical Maccabee (cf. p. ex. ca 1190, GUY DE CAMBRAI, Vengement Alixaundre, ed. B. Edwards, p. 96, 1748 [var. 2nd half of 13th century]: Judas Macabrés; ca 1200, 2nd Continuation of Perceval, ed. W. Roach, t. 4, p. 500, 32278 [var. 13th c.]: judas macabre).

The entry goes on to describe four more specific hypotheses about why Maccabees may have been a source. The evidence is slight and doesn't address the Arabic or Syriac claims, and so it is omitted here.

The Arabic etymology is possible, but there is more direct evidence for connecting the form Macabre to something like "Judas Macabre" than there is for making a connection to an Arabic or Syriac root.

  • Nice answer. Thx. – S Conroy May 20 at 19:57
  • Bad answer, you omitted half of the quote. They deem it potentially due to a family name, given to a poem, painting or dance named after the respective inventor. Which sounds like a last resort for etymology. – vectory May 20 at 21:41
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    @vectory Why is this a bad answer? The question was about why the Arabic etymology is dismissed. I omitted the more specific ideas about where macabre came from because that wasn't asked about and also because the specific guesses are more dubious. Anyone curious about more can read the rest of the dictionary entry I linked to. – TaliesinMerlin May 20 at 23:36
  • @TaliesinMerlin. When I clicked on the link to Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé, I got a 'session expirée' message. Could you repost the link, or it a paywall thing? – S Conroy May 21 at 11:21
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    @SConroy My bad; I didn't realize it wasn't a permanent link. Start from this page: atilf.atilf.fr , click the Entrer button, on the next page search "Macabre" in the upper right, and it should automatically bring you to that page. – TaliesinMerlin May 21 at 12:23
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FYI this issue was picked up in a wiktionary discussion, surely due to this question,, summing up Le Tresor's entry.

[...] noting that the forms Judas Macabrés and judas macabre for Judas Maccabeus are attested. There is also a Medieval attestation of the Latin designation choraea Machabaeorum, meaning “dance of the Maccabees” […]

If the central idea is that Judas Maccabaeus can be found as Judas macabres, that's begging the question, in my humble opinion, because they don't explain where the r comes from. It would be trivial to assume that's from Machabaoerum (Late Latin?), but they leave it open for interpretation. Likewise, since this isn't Latin.SE, I don't know where that r came from either.

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