Subscribe to Newsletter
Monthly Newsletter: Join more than 3,000 African literature enthusiasts!
Subscribe for African literature news, and receive a free copy of our "Guide to African Novels."
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

Welcome to Brittle Paper, your go-to site for African writing and literary culture. We bring you all the latest news and juicy updates on publications, authors, events, prizes, and lifestyle. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram (@brittlepaper) and sign up for our "I love African Literature" newsletter.

Monthly Newsletter!

Subscribe for African literature news, and receive a free copy of our
"Guide to African Novels."

Archives

On Confessional Schizo-Poetry and Finding Meaning: In Conversation with JK Anowe, Winner of the 2017 Brittle Paper Award for Poetry

jk anowe - graph

JK Anowe, a Nigerian-born poet, holds a BA in French from the University of Benin, Nigeria, where he was awarded […]

Photos | Pages & Palette Hosts Reading of Frankie Edozien’s Lives of Great Men in Abuja

Lives of Great Men - Frankie Edozien at Pages & Palette -- photo by Victor Adewale (9)

Last December, Abuja bookstore Pages & Palette hosted a reading of Chike Frankie Edozien’s memoir Lives of Great Men. Published […]

Mauritanian Blogger Mohamed Mkhaïtir Has Now Been in Jail for 5 Years

mohamed mkhaitir

In December 2013, Mauritanian blogger Mohamed Mkhaïtir wrote a blogpost criticizing his country’s government for using religion to discriminate against minorities. […]

Read Chapter One of Chigozie Obioma’s An Orchestra of Minorities

an orchestra of minorities - graph

Chigozie Obioma’s second novel An Orchestra of Minorities was published this January. As part of The Summer Library’s “selected extracts from […]

Laila Lalami’s Fourth Novel, The Other Americans, Is a Family Saga, a Murder Mystery, and a Love Story

laila lalami - alchetron - graph

Laila Lalami’s new novel is forthcoming on 26 March 2019 from Pantheon, an imprint of Penguin Random House. The 320-page […]

Thursday’s Children: 11 Contributors to Forthcoming Anthology Discuss Experimentation and the Nature of Creative Nonfiction

thursday's children - graph

Thursday’s Children is a forthcoming anthology of personal essays. Co-edited by Adams Adeosun and Bello Damilare, it comes with an […]

Thanks for signing up!

Never miss out on new posts. Subscribe to a digest, too:

No thanks, I only want the monthly newsletter.