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Equine-powered itinerant produce retailer

There was an unusual degree of interest, by the standards of this blog, to the post about the traditional Baltimore terms a-rab and arabber:

I forwarded it to a group of professional colleagues. Here is what some authorities say:

Robert Hartwell Fiske, editor of The Vocabula Review:
I imagine A-rab can look jarring in headline type, but Arabber looks misspelled or misbegotten or perhaps worse and does not in the least sound respectful to anyone unfamiliar with the Baltimorian tradition. I’m no fan of politically correct language, but in this instance, since I dislike stereotyping and racial profiling even more, I would likely call them street vendors or merchants — despite what the Sun’s house style dictates.

Erin McKean, chief consulting editor for American dictionaries at the Oxford University Press: I'd like to keep the caveat that it's hard for someone who isn't a member of a particular group (e.g., Arabs) to pontificate about what would be offensive to people who ARE members. … I think that Arabber should not be taken to be insulting to people from the Gulf/North Africa etc., but then again I'm not Arab. It's important to remind people, I think, that one string of alphabetic characters can carry more than one meaning, and although the meaning that's the strongest emotionally can 'bleed' over onto the other meanings, it doesn't necessarily have to happen. I only know the word Arabber from the wonderful show HOMICIDE.

Joe Grimm, recruiting and development editor at the Detroit Free Press: I am sure that some people want to hold onto the term, given its historic origins. But language evolves, as does society. Many Arabs found work as peddlers (city and country) in the Midwest, as well. Today, Detroit has the nation’s highest concentration of Arab Americans and so we do, of course, listen. The fundamental problem with occupational terms like this one is that they were simplistic in the first place and have become offensive as we have outgrown them....To use the identifier for an ethic group as the name for an occupational group is bound to be confusing. It gets worse when you consider that in some areas, like Detroit, the mispronunciation AY-rab is a pejorative and is used by some people as an insult. Fighting for its preservation has the unintended consequence of validating the slur. I understand that some people will fight to preserve a tradition. I understand, too, that some people would see that as an effort to preserve and protect a slur and to keep them down. In this case, I would have tradition stand aside and let the language evolve. I would use the more specific term: peddlers.

Steve Kleinedler, supervising editor at Houghton Mifflin and member at large of the board of the Dictionary Society of North America: Regardless of what the history of the word is, one cannot avoid the reality of modern-day context. Even though you can linguistically and etymologically justify the use of Arab in the contexts you mention, the fact of the matter is, sociologically, a significant portion of your audience is going to take it another way. In this regard, it isn’t an issue of being correct, it’s an issue of how you want to be perceived. … Even though there’s this longstanding Baltimore tradition of Arabs and Arabbers, the reality of the modern day world might caution one before using it. I don’t live in Baltimore, so I can’t judge the degree to which it’s ingrained in the culture there. … From a strictly lexicographic context, you’re right, the term does have that sense, but ... other concerns might override its use.

One respondent to the blog says that the late Julius Westheimer traced the origins of the words to 19th-century Baltimore, when street vendors had to get a huckster’s license from a municipal official, Albert Rabb, who signed the licenses “A.Rabb.” It’s a charming story, and if someone is able to trace the existence of such an official and such a practice, I’d be less likely to suspect folk etymology.

And one colleague at The Sun insists emphatically that the term must derive from arable, or suitable for producing crops. It applies to land fit for plowing. This, too, smells of folk etymology.

I’m tempted to say that people who come to a place bear an obligation to learn the local customs and expressions before they take offense. If you were to go to Britain and be urged by an Englishman to “keep your pecker up,” you would be ill-advised to conclude that he is soliciting a sexual encounter. The expression is the equivalent of urging “chin up.” Likewise, if you come to Baltimore, you might take the trouble to learn that arabber does not carry any pejorative color here and is not intended as a slur.

At the same time, as more and more people come to Baltimore who did not grow up here, and as our journalism goes out on the Internet well beyond our core circulation area, we incur a much greater risk of needlessly offending people by hanging on to the venerable term.

Sometimes there are no good solutions.

Posted by John McIntyre at 9:51 AM | | Comments (6)


I find this discussion to be idiotic. Especially given the various contributors who do not live in Baltimore nor understand the Arabber tradition of Baltimore. Arabbers are as much a part of the fabric of Baltimore as the crab is a part of the fabric of Maryland. I thought it was politically correct to call people what they themselves prefer to be called. At this time, Arabbers are under attack by the city and urban development, all the while they provide a valuable service of bringing fresh produce to the doorstep, in a city where they are few markets. If people get wacky sensitive about the term Arabber, then they should spend a few minutes researching these people, their horses, their long tradition of business and the art they bring to the streets of Baltimore.

Is it part of the Sun's reporting duty to keep with the flavor of Baltimore? I'm not trying to imply an answer to that; I'm just thinking out loud.

Your colleagues (who seem to hail from parts-not-of-Baltimore) seem to have an expanded view of their journalistic/linguistic duties; that is, they believe that their choice of words needs to be easily digestible by all groups. This is a valid position, of course, but incompatible with a goal of preserving local flavor... isn't it?

Epipr ?

street peddlers, long called "Arabbers" by locals ...

This, encore! I too only know of Arabbers from "Homicide: Life on the Street" and that wonderful episode where the actor playing the Arabber gave a virtuoso performance. ( I was glad he never confessed: I never liked Bayless the Prissy and I wouldn't confess my mother's maiden name to him.) In any case, I thought it had been decided that that that group of Baltimorons wished to be called Arabbers,and that their wishes should be honored.To follow the path of the constitutionally oblique and others who have been corrected politically, only gets you more euphemisms, not to mention ungainly hyphenates. A culture in which people can not speak to what they mean lest the perpetually and professionally oppressed begin to bleat,most assuredly has lost its language and its way. Or perhaps it has simply given them up,while waving the white flag of pre-emptive surrender.

Maybe I missed the answer to this question, but are a lot of Arabs offended by the usage? Seems to me that's a good place to start when analyzing this sort of style issue.

Also, are Gypsies offended by the term "Gypsy cab?"

Gypsies prefer "Romany", as a matter of fact.

I'd say the main point here is that the Sun is not confined to Baltimore. You don't have readers "coming to" Baltimore and refusing to assimilate, you have readers around the world judging you and deciding not to come back to your web site. Up to you - cling to local traditions without a word of explanation, explain them, or change them in your on-line edition.

(I confess, I thought it was spelled "ayrab", myself.)

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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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