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A-rabs and Arabs

In Baltimore, by long-standing convention, a street peddler operating a horse-drawn cart of fresh produce is called an A-rab, pronounced AY-rab. Why we are asked, in an age of greater sensitivity about derogatory ethnic terms, do we perpetuate this one?

The term A-rab or Arabber for a street peddler has a long history in Baltimore. The city has an Arabber Preservation Society, a nonprofit organization formed in 1994 that seeks to preserve this 19th-century tradition.

The word arab in the sense of a peddler appears to derive from street arab, or, according to the unabridged Webster’s New International Dictionary, a “homeless vagabond in the streets of a city or esp. an outcast boy or girl: GAMIN.” The Oxford English Dictionary locates this sense of “a homeless little wanderer, a child of the street” in a citation from 1848. That’s the sense in which the term can be found in the Sherlock Holmes stories from the Victorian era.

This association of wanderers with Arabs likely reflects the sense of the nomadic life historically led by the peoples on the Arabian Peninsula. By extension, the person wandering the streets has been transformed from a vagrant to a vendor. The term street arab has fallen largely into disuse over the past century.

The Sun’s insistence in its house style that the Baltimore street peddlers are to be referred to as A-rabs, not Arabs, is a means of differentiating the local patois from the ethnic term. Whatever stereotypes of Arabs may be current in American culture, the Baltimore terms, A-rab and Arabber, indicate a respect for people who work very hard to make a living, and also an affectionate respect for a local tradition.

Nevertheless, since A-rab can look jarring in headline type, we are revising our stylebook to give preference to the alternative Arabber.

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:46 AM | | Comments (13)


I have lived in the Baltimore area since 1967 and have long wondered about the derivation of this term. Thanks.

Well, you've got me on a hunt with this one.

There's no conclusive evidence that this particular term is directly related to Arabs meaning people from the Arabian peninsula or the Middle East. Of course, there's none that it isn't, either.

The assumption has always been that it's an off-shoot of "arab" as in "street arab," usually referring to street urchins or homeless kids. Thing is, there's nothing particularly derogatory about that and there's no particular evidence connecting the two.

Eric Patridge in his eighth edition of his Dictionary of Slang and Unconventional English says that by 1910 "arab" meaning "street urchin" was Standard English, presumably in the United Kingdom, though I'd be surprised if this was borne out by a search of contemporary periodicals. His definitions of Standard English and slang were always rather imprecise.

Baltimore's big-eared Mencken (visual source: dust jacket) in his Supplement Two (1948) to The American Language mentions "Araber" (his capitalization) and "to arab" as part of the speech of Baltimore in the 1880s and 1890s and says it was reminded to him by correspondence in 1945. He's also given the first use of the term in the Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE).

In that dictionary, the particular Baltimorean usage of "Arab" to mean "a huckster" or "street peddler of vegetables and fruits" is dated back to 1935 in a citation from the Sun. In another entry synonyms are given as "ayraba," "arabber" and "arab." The verb form—meaning "to huckster" and not capitalized—dates to 1948.

A later use by transference is of a "street-roaming taker of horse-racing bets," with a Sun citation from 1955. DARE has two more verb meanings of "arab," though: "to search about" (1949) and "to take horse-racing bets on the street" (1952).

DARE, by the way, says that the first "A" in "Arab" (for any meaning) was pronounced long (as in "gate" or "rake") as far back as 1850, at least according to an informant from Massachusetts. I think the hyphenated spelling the Sun uses is a great way to show that pronunciation.

I made an effort to find earlier uses of any of these but came up with nothing.

"Araber," for what it's worth is German for "Arab."

Interestingly, there was in the 1920s a theatrical usage of "Arab" meaning "Jew," as contradictory as that may seem to us now, though by 1929 it was out of fashion and even taboo.

Mencken in his Supplement One (1945) to The American Language credits the colorful Jack Conway—a former baseball player and vaudeville actor who went to work for Variety—with coining, or at least popularizing, that particularly meaning of term, though later in the volume Mencken says "sportive Jews use Arab or Mexican to designate a member of their nation." Mencken reports that the entertainment rag Variety—which used "Arab" that way in 1927—included it two years later in a list of verboten words (and, interestingly, the magazine used "verboten" as a noun rather than as an adjective).

Elsewhere, Walter McCulloch in Woods Words: A Comprehensive Dictionary of Loggers’ Terms (1958), defines "Arab" a little more pejoratively: "a workman who wanders around on a job, always managing to be away when there's dirty or heavy work to be done." Jonathan Lighter, in volume I of his Historical Dictionary of American Slang remarks in an editorial note that this particular usage perhaps recalls H.W. Longfellow's 1845 poem "The Day is Done":

The night shall be filled with music,
And the cares that infest the day
Shall fold their tents like the Arabs,
And as silently steal away.

This is interesting since Twain uses this passage in his hugely popular "Innocents Abroad" (1869), though at the head of a chapter about his time in Syria; the content has little to do with any of the slang meanings discussed here.

As there still appear to be Arabbers in Baltimore, why not ask them what they prefer to be called, instead of a tortured excavation of every possible definition in an attempt to be seen as "sensitive?"(That's another word that has been overworked, overused and generally worn out.) In a similar long journey towards not offending American Indians, it finally was revealed that they prefer that to "Native Americans" unless referring to a specific tribe. Problem solved, the practical solution prevails and we have dispensed with another euphemism.

JEM: As it happens, "A-rab" or "A-rabber" is in fact the term by which these street vendors conventioanlly refer to themselves.

I cannot believe this they were a part of my child hood as a matter of fact I have a painting hanging my home called Baltimore Arabs

And all this time I thought Huckleberry Finn was racist...guess I was wrong.

JEM: Well, yes.

I get so tired of foreigners coming into the USA and finding fault with our terms, language, politics, etc. The word A-rab is just a word not a feeling. This has been a word I have heard all my life and I have never associated it with people from the Arabian Penisula. Get over it!!!!

As a very, very young child I remember the Arabbers coming through the streets where my Grandmother lived, calling out what they had on they wagons special for the day, always running out to see not what they had oh no, I was too young to care but my Grandmother did, I wanted to see the horses, the men driving them about, those days were grand and will always live in my memories as days of old that were far grander then today..

Keep the term it's wasn't intended to be a derogatory term and it has a great a history that is appreciated by people who recognize the cultural history of Baltimore. The term is no more dreogatory then having the nations captial football team with a moniker of the Washington Redskins!

Xenophobia is an albatross around the necks of so many folks

I was born in Baltimore in 1932. For a very brief period of time my father worked as an arabber. In the documentary "We Are Arabbers" one of the arabbers attributes the Bible as the source of the name. During this period of time with no tv and limited radio the church and the Bible would have been a major literary source for the arabbers. While they were identified as peddlers or hucksters or traders by the general population the arabbers chose to give themselves by a name of their own choosing. Naming was very important then as evidenced in "We Are Arabbers"... every arabber had a nickname. Because arabbers traveled to their customers it is my sense that they identified with nomadic traders of color from the Bible. It elevated the arabber to an individual who was plying a very old and noble trade. Of course there is no documentation for any of this,so the best I can offer is that I was there and this is how it felt. If you lived in Baltimore during the heyday of arabbing "We Are Arabbers" is a wonderful trip to the past.

Why not just spell it like it's pronounced? When I was growing up in Baltimore people said "AY-rab" for the horse vendors (and "AR-ub" for the Middle Eastern folks), so Ayrab shouldn't be so bad.

Do Baltimoreans of Middle Eastern heritage care what the veggie vendors are called?

It seems to me that, if you are going to participate on a board about language, you should proofread and spellcheck your post before clicking "Post." (Bill Chatman, this means you.) We are in the presence of greatness; let's not undervalue it.

It appears that this article is a linguistic one, but a little glance on the quick analysis of its content reveals and shows other intentions and tendences.

We, Arabs, say it in (Blanc on White):

You have no excuse to keep the offensive definition of Arabs.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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