Arab, Arabian, Arabic

Is there any difference between those three adjectives, or are they fully interchangeable? They are all mentioned in my dictionary, and there seems to be no difference except for the fact that Arabic is defined as “of the Arabs, esp their language or literature,” while the other two are merely “of the Arabs.”
Any slight nuance in meaning “Arabian” has but “Arab” doesn’t?

In standard usage (forget for a moment what the dictionary says is, technically, acceptable):

  1. “Arab” is a noun, referring to a person (e.g. “Omar Sharif is an Arab.”) It can also be used as an adjective.

  2. “Arabic” is a noun referring to a language (“The people of Egypt speak Arabic.”). It can also be an all-purpose adjective (“Arabic culture” or “Arabic traditions”).

  3. “Arabian” is a rather outdated, clunky term, except when referring to specific geographic locations or to “1001 Arabian Nights.” That is, it’s fine to speak of “the Arabian peninsula,” but it would sound odd if you said “Omar Sharif is Arabian,” or “Our sociology class is studying Arabian culture.” Just as it sounded rather odd when President Bush referred to Greeks as “Grecians”- it’s not WRONG, per se, but it sounds awkward!

I agree with astorian. “Arabian” has a dated feel, and is not generally used in the US outside of certain specific phrases (e.g. Arabian horses, Arabian Sea, etc). The word also seems more associated with the actual peninsula while “Arab” used as an adjective doesn’t have that connotation.

OK, I got it. Thanks!

“Arabian” has a dated feel

Essentially because there’s nowhere called Arabia any more, the country is now Saudi Arabia.

Not for long after Iraq goes down :wink:

There has never been a country called “Arabia”.

It has always been a geographic descriptor referring to the penninsula, not a nation. Saudi Arabia was the first country to incorporate the term into the country name. And at that all it means is that part of Arabia ( which is by no means the whole penninsual, though it’s the biggest chunk ) that is under the control of the House of Saud.

  • Tamerlane

According to Fowler’s Modern English Usage:

= = = = = = = = = = = = =

With exceptions for a phrase or two, such as *gum arabic, *the three adjectives are now differentiated, Arab meaning of the Arabs, Arabian of Arabia, and Arabic of the language or writing or literature of the Arabs. So we have an Arab chief, child, girl, horse, league, sheikh; Arab courage, fanatics, fatalism, philosophy, traditions; the Arabian desert, fauna, flora, gulf and nights; Arabian gales; the arabic numerals; an Arabic word; Arabic literature, writing. Arab and Arabian can sometimes be used indifferently; thus an Arab village is one inhabited by Arabs; if it happens to be in Arabia it is also an Arabian village, and may be called by either name; the Arab war is one with Arabs; the Arabian war is one in Arabia; and the two may be one. Also Arabian may still be used instead of Arab of what belongs to or goes back to the past, as in Arabian conquests, monuments philosophy, records.

= = = = = = = = = = = =

Each has a specific usage. No mention of “dated feel.” And “Arabia” is a geographic rather than political name.

– Beruang

Well, Beruang, I can buy that. But you’ll notice your cite says “Arabian may still be used instead of Arab of what belongs to or goes back to the past”, indicating that at one time Arabian was used to refer to everything Arab, not just to things that involve the Arabian peninsula. Using it as a substitute for “Arab” does have a “dated feel”, and that’s what I meant to refer to. Sorry if that wasn’t clear. I agree that “Arabian” with respect to the geopraphic area is perfectly fine.


Oops, sorry! I misread my 1932 Pear’s Cyclopaedia. It has “Arabia” in large print; a closer looks shows the actual regional names: the kingdoms of Hejaz and Nejd, Aden Protectorate, etc.

How’s about this:

“Arabia” is the name of a peninsula in Southwest Asia, and an undefined adjacent mainland area. “Arab” is the name for a person of the ethnic group that historically inhabited Arabia, which has spread and intermarried with much of the other peoples of the Middle East, so that Syria, Libya, etc. consider themselves as much “Arab states” as Saudi-Arabia and Oman.

“Arabic” is the name for the language spoken by the Arabs, and in which the Quran was written, which has become a lingua franca and even the major spoken language for much of the Near East. It is also the adjective used for describing the culture and political philosophy of the Arabs.

“Arabian” is the adjective meaning, approximately, “pertaining to Arabia.” “Arab” as an adjective may cover either or both of these meanings.

Polycarp: Sounds good to me :).

Except…I would define “Arab” slightly differently. Rather I would say it is a large ethnic-grouping ( with subgroups ) defined by language, that came into being as the result of Arabic spreading both through immigration from Arabia, but more importantly because it became the lingua france of a large empire.

The reason for making that distinction, is that while there was substantial Arab migration to certain areas, it was minimal elsewhere ( like Egypt ) and in most areas did not cause a major demographic shift. A better analogy is to the spread of Latin in the Roman Empire, which though carried by de-commisioned Roman soldiers and others throughout the empire, spread more as a result of it being the language of commerce and government.

  • Tamerlane

Tamerlane - even the language definition is hardly true anymore; a Morroccan’s speech would be nearly incomprehensible to an Iraqi. The “Arab” definition is more political than anything else.

True, Alessan, there are some pretty significant dialectical differences ( hence my mention of sub-groups ).

But there is a standardized Arabic that is widely disseminated among at least the educated classes in the Arab world and a sense of (some ) shared culture and hertitage. So I’d still it call it an ethnicity of sorts, just like the Han Chinese ( who on occasion speak mutually unintelligible “dialects” as well ). But it really does depend how, and how rigorously, you’re going to define ethnicity :).

  • Tamerlane