October 17, 2004

Falafel, loofah, whatever

Francis Heaney has pointed out that the puzzling reference to falafel in Bill O'Reilly's alleged telephone courtship was certainly a substitution for "loofah". This spoils a number of excellent jokes about falaphilia, taboulehmania, etc. Or maybe it improves them?

Anyhow, whatever its psychodynamics, the substitution was a psycholinguistically normal one: same part of speech, same /l/ and /f/ flanking the stressed syllable, similar eastern-Mediterranean associations.

And the same language of origin. According to the OED and the AHD, loofah (or loofa or luffa) is from Egyptian Arabic lūfah (or perhaps Arabic lūf, singulative of lūfa) referring to a plant of the species Luffa ægyptiaca, whose pod produces a fibrous substance "used as a sponge or flesh-brush"; while falafel (or felafel) is from Arabic falāfil, plural of filfil "pepper", referring of course to falafel, which (for those not living in cities whose streets are lined with falafel-trucks), is "ground spiced chickpeas shaped into balls and fried".

Posted by Mark Liberman at October 17, 2004 09:16 PM