The Arabic word غَنَم ‘flock (of sheep, goats, etc.)’ is cognate with the word غَنِيمَة ‘booty/loot’.

Does the word for ‘flock’ come from the word for ‘loot’, or is it the other way round, presumably because of the type/reason for raiding at some point in time?

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    From a purely typological viewpoint, the latter seems more likely. There are a fair few instances of words for livestock, cattle, sheep, etc. forming the basis of words for loot, treasure, property and similar: Latin pecunia ‘money’ (as in ‘pecuniary’) is derived from pecu ‘cattle’; Icelandic means both ‘sheep (or other livestock)’ and ‘money’ and is the same word as English fee. The only reverse case I know of is Irish táin, originally ‘(act of) driving off [stolen cattle]’, whence ‘loot’ (plural táinte ‘wealth’), whence ‘flock, herd’ in general – but not ‘cow’. Commented Jan 5 at 11:06
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    @JanusBahsJacquet: in Polish, bydło is "being > cattle". "Being, existence" is a popular metaphor for "property, capital" (compare English "estate", Russian состояние).
    – Quassnoi
    Commented Jan 5 at 20:22
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    Also conversely, @JanusBahsJacquet, cattle, chattel are both from capitalis.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Jan 6 at 17:52
  • @Colin Very true, didn’t think of that despite using the word in my own comment! Like the Irish word, that’s semi-reversed, in that cattle is sort of in-between: it’s still a type of property, just one measured in animals. If cattle were to become the normal word for a cow, that would be a full-on reverse example. Commented Jan 6 at 18:35
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    @Adam Good question. Not a word I was familiar with, and Turkic is outside my bailiwick, but as far as I can tell from a cursory search, it seems both meanings are reconstructed for the Proto-Turkic word, so at a guess I’d say we don’t know (unless *tabar is somehow related to the root *tap- ‘find’, in which case I suppose ‘booty’ would be the more likely original meaning – but I have no idea if that’s even remotely plausible). Commented Jul 9 at 7:51

3 Answers 3


The root ġ-n-m occurs in Arabic, Ancient South Arabian (Sabaic), and Modern South Arabian (Harsusi); otherwise there are no Semitic cognates. In Sabaic it forms a noun “booty” and a verb “to plunder”; in Harsusi there is ġenōm "to be loaded with booty". The parallel forms favour the conclusion that “booty, plunder” is primary and “(plundered) sheep” is secondary, but it is hard to be certain.



It's hard to tell, cognates with other Semitic languages (which there aren't many) point towards "plunder, booty", but crosslinguistically it's more common for words for animals to become words for "booty" or "money" than vice versa.

Do keep in mind that in Semitic languages simply sharing the consonants doesn't mean they are necessarily related, this especially applies to common nouns and animal words. Examples in Arabic include:

  1. حِمَار (/ħimaːr/) "donkey" isn't necessarily related to أَحْمَر (/ʔaħmar/) "red".
  2. جَمَل (/ɟamal/) "camel" isn't necessarily related to جَمَال (/ɟamaːl/) "beauty".
  3. ثَوْر (/θawr/) "bull" isn't necessarily related to ثَوْرَة (/θawra(h)/) "excitement, agitation, outburst, revolution".
  4. قِطّ (/qitˤtˤ/) "cat" isn't necessarily related to قَطُّ (/qatˤtˤu/) "ever, never".
  5. عِجْل (/ʕiɟl/) "calf" isn't necessarily related to عَجَلَة (/ʕaɟala(h)/) "haste, hurry".
  6. غُرَاب (/ʁuraːb/) "crow, raven" isn't necessarily related to غَرْب (/ʁarb/) "west".
  7. حَيَّة (/ħajja(h)/) "snake" isn't necessarily related to حَيّ‎ (/ħajj/) "alive" (this one is instead likely to be from the root √ħwy related to coiling around, surrounding, and containing).
  8. عَظْم (/ʕaðˤm/) "bone" isn't necessarily related to عَظِيم (/ʕaðˤiːm/) "great".
  9. نَهَار (/nahaːr/) "day, daytime" isn't necessarily related to نَهْر (/nahr/) "river".
  10. ذَكَر (/ðakar/) "male" isn't necessarily related to ذِكْر (/ðikr/) "recollection, remembrance, mentioning".

الغَنَمُ and sheep are not equal

Strictly speaking:

غَنَم or الغَنَمُ ((al-)ghanam)

doesn't have a singular of the same root. Since it is used to describe a herd of either goats and sheep (caprini/caprinae) or of both, it rather has a plural of the same root: which is أغنام.
In fact, this term was even used to refer only to herds in general as some hadith texts and poems show.
Beside others you may find the following descriptions in almaany.com (Arabic-Arabic Dictionaries):

الغَنَمُ : القطيعُ من المَعْز والضأْن، ،مفرد شاة
بفتح الغين والنون ، لا واحد له من لفظه ، والواحدة منه شاة جمع أغنام ، اسم يشمل الشاء والماعز.

This term refers to the (part of the) livestock of which its flesh, milk and its wool/leather is of use: in other words the caprini/caprinae.

On the other hand, its singular is:

شاة (transliterated: shaatun).

Note that شاة has a plural of the same root (See on almaany.com Arabic-Arabic):

شياهٌ (transliterated shiyaahun) and شاءٌ (transliterated shaa'un)

As for the singular of sheep (only), it is also called:

ضأن (transliterated da'nun).

booty and herd in Arabic: connection and distinction

See also Arabic-English: As for booty, it comes from the verb:

غَنِمَ (ghanima)

There doesn't seem to be a linguistic connection between both (at least from a logical point of view) because:

  • If we assume that war booty has a connection with caprini we must assume that keeping caprini was widespread among the Arabic tribes, but this wasn't the case. In fact, it was common for Arabs from the middle of the Arabic peninsula to have Camels not caprini for which only the the people of Yemen were known. This was the explanation of some hadith interpreters who identified the people of small cattle as the people of Yemen in the Sahih hadith compiled for example in Sahih Muslim:

The summit of unbelief is towards the East and the pride and conceitedness is found among the owners of horses and camels who are rude and uncivil, people of the tents, and tranquillity is found among those who rear goats and sheep.
رَأْسُ الْكُفْرِ نَحْوَ الْمَشْرِقِ وَالْفَخْرُ وَالْخُيَلاَءُ فِي أَهْلِ الْخَيْلِ وَالإِبِلِ الْفَدَّادِينَ أَهْلِ الْوَبَرِ وَالسَّكِينَةُ فِي أَهْلِ الْغَنَمِ ‏"‏

  • However, it was more common to use camels and dromedaries as booty or to ransom or as gifts or as a reparation etc.

However, some scholars of Islamic jurisprudence like al-Haskafi in his ad-Durr al-Mukhtar say otherwise:

الغنم مشتقّ من الغنيمة ‏;‏ لأنّه ليس لها آلة الدّفاع، فكانت غنيمةً لكلّ طالب‏.‏
Al-Ghanam is derived from the word “ghanimah” because it does not have a means of defense, so it was a spoil for everybody needing(asking for) it.

This statement supports the view that the booty comes first. Note that the scholars explained that the horns both sheep and goats have do not contradict the fact that they have no means to defend themselves taken as booty.

  • How does this answer the question?
    – Cairnarvon
    Commented Jul 8 at 18:18
  • I don’t understand what all the other, unrelated words for sheep have to do with the question – shaatun and da’nun are clearly unrelated and not relevant. It doesn’t really matter whether غَنَم means a single sheep a herd of them – the point is that it refers to animals and has a strong similarity to a word meaning ‘booty, plunder’. Your point about not distinguishing cattle from sheep seems to apply more to you than the asker: cattle is bovine (i.e., it’s cows and oxen), which you don’t mention at all; goats and sheep are not cattle (and ‘small cattle’ is not a thing). Commented Jul 9 at 8:34
  • @JanusBahsJacquet there's a clear misunderstanding when ghanam means herd it doesn't mean sheep, so the question is wrongly asked from the start. The point is that it is at the end answered. I'm not a native speaker so I'm not aware of linguistic subtleties of the English language you called simply call ghanam a word used to refer to caprini or caprinae... If you -as a more fluent person in English- care about the mistake I've made about cattle, I do care about the mistake is done here about sheep.
    – Medi1Saif
    Commented Jul 9 at 9:39
  • ‘Sheep’ is both singular and plural, so it can refer to both a single sheep or a whole flock of them; the way the question is phrased, it could be either, but most likely the plural was meant (i.e., sheep in general, flocks of sheep). As best I can tell, the Arabic word is similar to the Icelandic , which is basically the sheep equivalent of ‘cattle’. That fits perfectly well within the meaning described in the question. The point of the question is just this: did [booty, plunder] become [animals], or did [animals] become [booty, plunder]? Whether it’s one or more animals is unimportant. Commented Jul 9 at 9:50
  • I’m not saying it’s not valid to point out the mistake; it’s just not an answer to the question. I’ve edited the question now to reflect the more accurate meaning. I would suggest that you remove the first part of your answer accordingly, since it’s incidental to the question. If the latter part of your answer is that you don’t think there’s a connection between the words for ‘flock’ and ‘booty’, that’s a valid answer, though it could use some extra sources or data to back it up. Commented Jul 9 at 9:53

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