The Arabic word for sheep, غَنَم, is cognate with the word for booty/loot, غَنِيمَة.

Does the word for sheep 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’. 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
    Jan 5 at 20:22
  • Also conversely, @JanusBahsJacquet, cattle, chattel are both from capitalis.
    – Colin Fine
    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. Jan 6 at 18:35

2 Answers 2


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".

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