Taking a ‘safari’ through Swahili-inspired words

"Safari," one of Swahili’s best-known contribution to English, has Arabic roots – a result of close ties between Oman and the Tanzanian coast.


I have been learning Swahili online, because of a family trip to Tanzania. I was surprised to encounter a word that looked familiar: kujenga (“to build”). I wondered whether this verb was related to Jenga, the tower-building game, and discovered that it is, indeed. The game’s inventor, Leslie Scott, was born in Tanzania and grew up speaking English and Swahili. She named it “Jenga” because this word both describes what the game is about in Swahili and is a catchy name. 

English has gotten a number of words from Swahili, which is the most widespread African language, spoken by around 200 million people. It has relatively few native speakers – estimates range from 2 million to 18 million – but has spread across the continent as a lingua franca. 

In the 20th century, Swahili became a key vehicle for Pan-Africanism, “the ideology and movement that encouraged the solidarity of Africans worldwide,” as a statement from the African Union puts it. Tanzania’s first president, Julius Nyerere, promoted Swahili as the linguistic driver of this unification, in the hopes that speakers of the country’s 120 and the continent’s thousands of Indigenous languages would be able to communicate without resorting to a colonial language such as English or German.

Pan-African ideals inspired the American holiday Kwanzaa. In 1966, Maulana Karenga, chairman of the Black studies department at California State University, Long Beach, created a celebration of African American heritage based on African harvest festivals: Matunda ya Kwanza (“first fruits”) in Swahili.

Some sources hold that jumbo (“a very large specimen of its kind”) and jamboree (“a large festive gathering”) derive from Swahili. “Jumbo” was the name of a huge elephant owned by circus maestro P.T. Barnum in the 1880s. No one knows for sure how he got his name, but it might have been a form of jambo, which means “issue” or “problem” and is a common Swahili greeting, as in “Do you have an issue? I have no issue.” Jamboree starts with jambo, and so might look related, but there is not much evidence for a Swahili connection here – it arose mysteriously in American slang in the 1860s. 

Around 20% of Swahili’s vocabulary comes from Arabic, as a result of close ties between Oman and the Tanzanian coast. Swahili’s best-known contribution to English is one of these words, derived from the Arabic safara (“to travel”): safari. In Swahili, safari refers to any sort of a “journey” or “expedition,” but my family and I are doing the English kind – getting in a Jeep and, we hope, seeing some animals!

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