83913948_eba6713672_z

Harmattan haze around Abuja central mosque (c) Kipp Jones for Wikipedia

 

If you’re anywhere on the West coast of Africa—between Gabon and Ghana—you’ve had a hard time of in the past few weeks. It’s been a dry, dusty, and hot affair called Harmattan.

Your lips are most likely chapped, your skin dry, not to mention the dusty haze and chilly mornings.

Of course, the culprit is that northeasterly wind that ferries dirt all the way from the Sahara desert and dumps it right on your door step.

I feel your pain, but I’m also intrigued by the word, Harmattan, the fact that it sounds a bit, shall I say, un-English.

I had some extra time on my hands this weekend and decided to look into the origin of the word.

The word harmattan has been in the English language for centuries, since 1671, but its origin is West African, Ghanaian to be precise. Makes sense given that it’s our weather.

The way the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) tells the story, Harmattan started out as “haramata,” a Twi or Fante word. The OED is not entirely sure.

But “haramata” has its own back story. It came from a much longer word—“Aherramantah.” But it turns out  that “Aherramantah” is actually a mix of two different words,  Aherraman and tar.

Here is where it gets interesting.

 Aherraman means “to blow” as in the blowing of the wind and tah means the “tallow” or grease that Africans in the past would rub on their skin to fight the dry roughness that the weather brought on.

In don’t know about you, but Aherramantah sounds like a mouth full. So thumbs up to the smart African who had the bright idea to chopped it down to “haramata,” which later morphed into Harmattan.

Towards the end of the 19th century, some guy tried to undermine the African origin of the word by claiming that it is an arabic word. Well, the OED insists otherwise. They’ve said that no such word has, to date, been found in Arabic.

Anyway, stay away from the heat and keep your skin well-oiled. It’s only two months before the first rains come!

 

************

Image by Kipp Jones via Flickr.

Tags: , ,

I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

2 Responses to “Harmattan — The Story of An African Word” Subscribe

  1. Catherine Onyemelukwe 2015/01/21 at 15:25 #

    Not only all the way to Ghana – why did you leave out Nigeria? Was it the alliteration?

  2. Ainehi Edoro 2015/01/21 at 19:28 #

    Hi Catherine,

    I’m happy you asked. So Nigerian is right in the middle of Gabon, which is the southernmost point of the Gulf of Guinea and Ghana which is the northernmost point. This is usually the part of west african most affected by harmattan.

Leave a Reply

I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

Subscribe to Blog via Email

Enter your email address to subscribe to this blog and receive notifications of new posts by email.

Archives

Is Fiston Mujila’s Tram 83 Misogynist Poverty Porn? Zukiswa Wanner and Richard Oduku Lead Strong Reaction to Ikhide Ikheloa’s Damning Criticism

tram_83

In August 2014, Congolese author Fiston Mwanza Mujila’s debut French-language novel, Tram 83, was released to rapturous acclaim in France. By […]

Roses and War | By Jonathan Otamere Endurance | Poetry

33431786922_b8bf038321_o

Prayers are symphonies of lamentation That begin from my mother’s lips, Like a bird beginning a day’s death, With a […]

Fear Woman | By Immanuel James Ibe-Anyanwu | Fiction

6107639393_8c8dff097c_o

  Irritated by our presence, the guard swatted us off the entrance gate with his baton, his face ugly with […]

An Ecofeminist Drawing New Language from Nature and His Anima | Q&A with Saddiq Dzukogi, 2017 Brunel International Poetry Prize Shortlistee

SaddiqDZUKOGI

Saddiq Dzukogi was recently shortlisted for the 2017 Brunel International Poetry Prize. We published his poem, “Collect Rainwater,” in February. Saddiq […]

Chimamanda Adichie’s Best Looks from the Dear Ijeawele Book Tour

adichie fashion (4)

Over the last two months, Chimamanda Adichie has been on the road publicizing her new book Dear Ijeawele. She’s spoken […]

#BlackGirlMagic: Sisonke Msimang’s Essay on Adichie Is a Brilliant Dissection of How Black Female Celebs Are Praised and Criticized

sisonke

In the last five years, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie has come to occupy a unique place in the pop culture conversation: […]