Today, millions of be-ghouled kids across North America will be facing the disappointment of “fun size” candy as they trick-or-treat for Halloween. While “fun size” may sour any ghost or goblin, candy makes for a quite the sweet and surprising etymology.

"Candy." Doodle & secret message by @andrescalo.
“Candy.” Doodle & secret message by @andrescalo.


Following in the tradition of the Romance languages, the earliest appearance of candy is in sugar-candy in 1390. From the French (sucre candi) and, previously, Latin (saccharum candi), we can unwrap the Arabic qand, “the crystallized juice of the sugar-cane” (Oxford English Dictionary [OED]). Passing through to Arabic from Persian, the word is connected to the Sanskrit khanda (“piece,” as in “piece of candy”), from the verb khand “to break.” (I think of small chunks of brittle as a visual reference, for whatever it’s worth.) The Online Etymology Dictionary proposes a Tamil root for “to harden.” Tamil, you may recall in my second post on “citrus,” is a Dravidian language, found in southern India and Sri Lanka.

Now that’s quite the Halloween haul.

Both sugar and cane also go back to the cradle of civilization, if you will, teaching us how ancient the “sweet-tooth” really is, to riff on Jordan Shipley’s commentary on these words. With both passing into English via the sturdy stock of French, Latin, and Greek, the former we can trace back to the Arabic sukkar (“sugar”), which has been connected to a Sanskrit word for “grit,” as in “ground-up,” like, well, grains of sugar. The historical phonology of sugar is quite ghoulish, however.

The latter, cane, is via a Semitic root, qanah, “reed,” which itself some link to the Sumerian gin, meaning the same. This root may also be part of the origin of caramel, along with the Indo-European root for “honey.” Canyoncanalcanister, cannon, and canon all, to various degrees, may be related to cane.

I know this holiday isn’t even over, but  I have to put out one yuletide decoration briefly: A candy cane may evoke Christmas, which, culturally speaking, is about as Christian and Western as it gets, but etymologically, we can see that candy cane comes from a whole different world. Now that’s quite the treat, isn’t?

Speaking of Arabic, ghoul is another Halloween-y word that ultimately haunts the Arabic-speaking world. First appearing in English in a 1786 translation of a French-language Gothic novel called Vathek, the word goes back to the Arabic ghul, referring to an “evil spirit” believed in Muslim countries to “rob graves and prey on corpses” (OED). The word is further rooted in a verb meaning “to seize.”

Seize away, ghoul, as long as you don’t steal my candy.

m ∫ r ∫


13 thoughts on “candy

  1. Great post! I really liked hearing the history behind it and am going to check out the story behind the candy-cane! It would make an interesting post for the holidays. I have a question for you.. How did you do the candy illustration, did you use an app for it? it really looked good and enjoyed the post. If you have a moment, please check out my blog and let me know what you think. Have a good one!


    1. Thank you for very kind words! The illustration is a doodle done by my brother, actually, little quick things he puts together for my post and which he scans and sends to me. I am glad you like the texture they add.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I am fascinated by how often arabic and persian influences have been incorporated in to English, and, in course, many other languages. It shows up again and again in your blog. That also reflects what I experienced when talking to a persian friend. She tried to teach me some Persian too, but more often we just happened to notice similar words when we’d ask what this or that is called. She was trying to brush up her English, and we both speak German, so we could connect words over three languages, which can be real fun. It surprised me how often I would tell her the English word for something, and she would say so oh, yes, it’s an old Persian word, almost the same pronunciation even today.


    1. Persian is indeed part of the Indo-Iranian branch of the Indo-European (IE) language, as hard as that can be to believe. So, cognates turn up in some surprising places, as you well note. Arabic, a Semitic language not in the IE family, has a great deal of influence on Persian, of course.


  3. When I first saw the Gothic novel title “Vathek” I initially wondered whether its title was a corrupted form of the Russian word вурдалак (vurdalák)?

    Being a synonym in Russian for гуль (gul’) ‘ghoul’ seems unusual in this instance as when you trace vurdalák back and compare it to related words in the other Slavic languages it doesn’t take long before you realise that the word is actually derived from a portmanteau of “волк” (wolf) + “длакa” (hide, fleece) giving it the inherent meaning of ‘werewolf’ rather than ‘ghoul’ although the Slavic word has been borrowed into Greek as βρικόλακας (vrikólakas) meaning ‘vampire’.

    Despite all this wondering on an aptly Hallowe’en topic in actual fact the eponymous Vathek is really a transliterated form of the Arabic al-Wāthiq (الواثق) who was the 9th Caliph of the Abbasid Caliphate reigning from 842 until 847 AD.


    1. The actual story behind “Vathek” may be one of transliteration, but the tale of “vurdalák” is quite interesting nonetheless. As always, thanks for the illumination!


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