Introduction to A Glossary of the Jargon of Fishermen and Boatmen in Egypt


To the memory of the first, or last, Egyptian-Egyptian

Bayoumi Andil (31 July 1942 – 8 October 2009)



This work may be viewed as an initial attempt, to collect the special jargon that is related to the activities of fishing and sailing in the Nile, the lakes, and the seas of Egypt. My interest in this subject had developed coincidentally back in 2005, in a day when I was sailing with my dear friend Ashraf El Suesi; I noticed that fishermen were using among themselves very special expressions and terms that were totally incomprehensible to me, since they were never used in the “Modern Egyptian Language” as Bayoumi Andil calls it, or the common, ordinary, or vulgar language, as most Egyptian literates call it!

And although my discovering of the language of the fishermen was coincidental, my following interest in documenting it was not; rather, it was highly influenced by my interest in Egyptian popular culture, the Egyptian language, and history.

The first question I asked myself back in 2005 was, where did all these expressions come from? And from which origin did the Egyptian fishermen and boatmen acquire them? When as I was doing this research I asked the fishermen and boatmen these same questions, they always answered that they have acquired them like they do the mother tongue, from their family or from those who taught them fishing and sailing. From this we can deduce that these expressions may be very old, especially given that the beginning of fishing activity in Egypt is as old as the times of our ancient grandfathers, as it is well documented in their writings and paintings.

Except in very rare occasions, the fishermen and boatmen did not know anything about the etymology of the expressions and terms that they themselves used in fishing or sailing; and because of this, it will be very difficult to reach any generalized definite conclusions regarding the origin of these expressions and their possible development through history, except only in the event we find a record of them preserved in older documents here or there, if any such documents at all exist. Investigating the etymology of these expressions was something that I have not attempted to do systematically in this research, since it would generally require much more resources and capacities than those which were affordable to me.

However, through out this research, every now and then a sign would appear and point me to a fact here or possibility there, regarding the origin of these expressions; and here, the science of linguistics may help us considerably in building an approximation to the general scope of possibilities regarding the etymology of these expressions. The first such sign came from phonology, the study of sound in language: Except in very distinct cases, the phonological identity of most expressions sounded very much compatible with the Modern Egyptian Language, the general spoken vernacular in Egypt. This was the case not only generally, but also in a manner that showed much sensitivity in corresponding to phonological variations of geographic location and the local dialects. This observation, along with the fact that the expressions themselves often changed from one geographic location to another, points strongly to the high probability of the process of transformation and development that these expressions seem to have passed through, just as is the case with the Egyptian vernacular itself and in general.

Contrary to this sign was another, which indicated that, since these expressions have been used by a very limited and relatively isolated social group, their historical development and transformation could have happened to a much lesser degree than in the general language. Bayoumi Andil gives the following example of expressions-merger: in medieval Egypt, when the Coptic language still held sway in people’s everyday life, the cheese-maker used to cry out “Gebna-Haloum” as he walked the streets to sell his product. Gebna and Haloum mean “cheese” in Arabic and Coptic respectively, and the motive of the cheese-maker to sell to both Arabs and Egyptians led him to use both expressions to advertise for his product. As time passed by, and due to several socio- economic and political influences, the Coptic “Haloum” began to disappear and to be superseded completely by the Arabic “Gebna”. Although in so many distinct occasions in the Modern Egyptian Language the original Egyptian expressions never become extinct, or even continued to prevail over the newly acquired Persian, Greek, Arabic, Turkish, or Western expressions, generally speaking the merging-superseding cycle probably happened much faster in more common words and expressions than in those used only within the closed and isolated circle of fishermen and boatmen, especially given that fishing was certainly never practiced in the arid homeland of the invading Arabs, who had the biggest linguistic impact on Egyptians thus far. And therefore we can generally expect more of the expressions collected here to have endured till the present since much older times, possibly ancient times, or at least to have changed at a much slower rate.

Of course I do not wish to jump to a deductive conclusion, suggesting that the origin of these expressions collected here is ancient Egyptian or Coptic. I am only attempting to open the discussion regarding the scope of possibilities. What is certain is that this research leaves no place for doubt, regarding the pragmatism and sense of practicality with which these expressions are being used today; in exactly the same fashion as that of the medieval cheese-seller, the contemporary Egyptian fisherman or boatman uses all his jargon for purely practical reasons. The proof of this is to be found most clearly in the use of imported modern western expressions which correspond to technological advances in fishing tools and methods, such as the word “Sonar” for example. Although there is yet an Egyptian equivalent to it (“Eskandeel”), most fishermen use the word “Sonar” to describe the system used in mechanized fishing, that shows information regarding depth of water, topography of bottom, and movement of fish.

At the same time, several other “socioeconomic” aspects seem to have had an impact on the development of some terms, which we find clearly in the word “Tarraad”, an expression used in northern Egypt in general and around lake Manzala in particular, to describe a certain medium-size boat propelled with a motor. This expression was never used by Egyptian fishermen and boatmen until after the return of many of them from work trips abroad in the Arabian gulf region. The structure of the boat itself, along with the name given to it, were brought to Egypt from the work experience of Egyptian fishermen in the Arabian gulf. This is generally an important aspect to keep in mind, traveling; for it is well known that Egyptian fishermen in general, and especially those who are well-experienced in mechanized fishing, travel frequently to work in Libya and the Arabian gulf region. Hence it is highly probable that, just as they may have imported several terms from there, they may also have exported many terms, since it is well-known that Egyptian fishermen have the most dominant experience of fishing in the middle-east.

On the other hand, the obvious origin of so many terms is, simply, Arabic! For example, we can easily attribute the word “Shabaka” (net), to the Arabic origin “Shabak” (connect or tie together). This by the way is not an insignificant sign, rather an important one, since it ascertains that a process of “disconnection” must have happened with the older, ancient Egyptian or Coptic word used for “net”. Yet in other cases I also found the opposite; continuity with the older Egyptian languages, whether Coptic or ancient Egyptian (it should be noted that Coptic is the third phase of the development of the ancient Egyptian language, following Demotic). And so in Fayyum for example, I discovered that fishermen there call the ground underneath the water by the name “Geb”, and Geb, it is well-known, is the ancient Egyptian god of “Earth”. Another example is the word “Wagala”, which describes a sharp object made of steel and which steams from a Coptic origin “ⲁⲩϫⲁⲗ”. Or there is a most famous example, the word “Bouri”, today given for a certain type of fish, in the original ancient Egyptian (), meant “fish” generically.

Thus, perhaps the best conclusion one may reach regarding the etymology of these terms, is to say that a great variety of origins and sources may be found for them, just as it is the case generally with the Egyptian vernacular in general. One may also conclude that these terms constitute a part of the Egyptian vernacular in general, not only because they are still being used today, but also because it is highly probable that they may have passed through the same or very similar process and phases of transformation and development.

The main source used here to track possible Coptic or ancient Egyptian terms is the following:

Common words in the spoken Arabic of Egypt, of Greek or Coptic origin by Prof. Dr. Georgy Sobhy Bey


Fishing locations in Egypt may be categorized as follows:

1. Mechanized fishing (Trawl fishing and Purse seine)

Mediterranean: Damietta, Alexandria, Rosetta (Rasheed), Idko, Marsa Matruh

Red Sea: Suez, El Tor, Hurghada

2. Major fishing hubs

Northern Egypt: Damietta, Alexandria, Rosetta (Rasheed), Idko, Marsa Matruh, Lake Brollos, Lake Manzala, Lake Bardawil.

Southern Egypt: High-dam Lake, Aswan

Red Sea: Suez, El-Tor

3. Regions of moderate or limited fishing:

Northern Egypt: Fishing on the Nile branches across most governorates

Fayoum: Lake Qaroun, Fayyum lake (Wadi el Rayyan). However fishing activity increases considerably during the fishing season in the summer.

Southern Egypt: Fishing on the Nile stream across all southern governorates, particularly in Sohag and Qena.

Red Sea: Nuweiba, Abu Zenima

The construction and building of boats and ships of all kind is spread out across all locations in which fishing activity exists

In this glossary, the ordering of the terms is not always alphabetical, and in the cases where pronunciation seemed problematic, I used a phonetic script with the Latin alphabet to clarify it (just as we casually write Egyptian with Latin letters on the internet). During the phase of collecting the terms I used my own perfectly phonetic script with Coptic letters, which was important to me so that I do not waste much time adding signs to the letters as we do in Arabic, to ensure that I have documented the correct pronunciation.

The contents of the glossary are generally represented in a very intuitive and simple way; the geographic location in which terms are being used is always listed next to each term between brackets, and synonyms or similar terms which differ from one another according to location, are being represented together in one cluster regardless of their alphabetical ordering; something which I thought would be useful for the reader to know how different geographic locations call the same objects or ideas.

It is important at this stage to talk about the patterns of linguistic differences and variety, that is, the geographic divisions which always characterized one location differently from others; and even though there will always be several common shared terms across all or most locations, we can quite easily observe the following distinct divisions:

Southern Egypt: starting from Beni Sweif, all the way down to the high-dam lake. Here I found the highest degree of internal variety in the terms, along with a very unique and distinct phonetic identity.

Northern Egypt:In this glossary, “Northern Egypt” (= Bahari) is a general term used to describe the northern governorates, Lake Manzala (including Matareyya, which is the southern side of the lake), and Lake Brollos. This term does not include the governorates or fishing hubs of the Mediterranean coast, since these actually have developed their own set of terms, also because the fishing medium there is the sea rather than the Nile of the lakes. Sometimes, a certain fishing term from that region (northern Egypt) may be unique to a specific place in it but is not used generally in the region, and in that case I will have specified the exact location right next to the term.

The Mediterranean: Starting from El-Arish on the east, passing through Port-Said,Brollos,Damietta, Alexandria,Rosetta (Rasheed), Idko,and all the way to Marsa Matruh in the west. (By Damietta and Rosetta here I refer to their location on the Mediterranean coast, but not the two major Nile branches). Lake Brollos seem to have a certain special and unique status, since on the one hand it is quite an isolated lake that generally belong with the northern region, but on the other it also has one access to the Mediterranean through a strait (narrow opening) near Borg El-Brollos. In general lake Brollos, even considering the fishing terms and expressions used there, may well be considered as a middle ground between the Mediterranean and northern Egypt. However there are several terms and expressions that are unique to lake Brollos alone.

The Red Sea: Including Suez, El-Tor, Ismailia, Hurghada, and other places involving lesser fishing activity such as Nuweiba and Abu Zenima. In many cases there are terms that are unique to the Suez, in which case “Suez” will be listed between brackets next to the term.

Fayyum: Generally a very unique place not just in the terms used, but also the methods of fishing and types of boats.

Sinai Bedouins: At the red sea region, the Bedouins of South Sinai have developed a totally unique and independent set of fishing terms. Unfortunately due to practical difficulties, I was unable to visit the Bedouins of North Sinai to make a comparison of the terms used there with those of the South.

Finally, it remains to be said that this categorization is very general, and that of course in many occasions there are differences in the words used within the range of each of these regions, and there were probably several other differences that I did not come across or was unable to notice regarding the geographic differences in the terms used.


I believe that any attempt by just one person to collect all the special jargon of fishermen and boatmen in Egypt would hardly result in complete success; not only due to the great multiplicity and variety of these terms, but also because the time and effort that will be required to collect them all might take several years. The truth is that the more time I spent in one locality, the more I kept finding new terms. Yet after I passed a certain stage of traveling and searching, I felt the time has come for me to stop! This was because my systematic way or methodology of searching for words started to become redundant, leading mostly to words which I had already registered. Then most of the new words I found came to me just by coincidence or chance out of a casual conversation here or over-listening to fishermen talk there! At other times I would suddenly come upon a flow of new words, realising how much I would have missed had I left the place only one day earlier! These facts together led me to conclude that, however much I keep looking, I will always find more, while at the same time, the cost of researching, in terms of money, time, and effort, started to pile up heavily on me.

Variations of the terms from one place to another are endless; a word such as “Medra”, the long thick wooden pole that is made of one type of phragmite reeds or another, and with which the fisherman propels his boat, or strikes over the water surface to scare the fish away toward the net, is called “Medra” (or sometimes “Medraya”) everywhere in Egypt, and I never heard any other equivalent or synonym to it anywhere (except in Suez sometimes they also call it “Rouma”). We may well consider this to be a very rare case; in most other cases, not only did terms differ from one geographic location to another, but sometimes even within the same locality, most notably in the region of Southern Egypt, something which I think may have to do with the ease of movement and merging up and down the Nile stream. And truly, most fishermen in Aswan, the southernmost major city of Egypt, come from Sohag and Qina further in the north; and there I found great variances in the terms to the extent that, at first, I thought will make the task of geographic categorization impossible. For example, there is a well-known method of net-fishing that is commonly called “Gorrafa”, for which I discovered three different names in Southern Egypt: “Garfa” in Sohag, “Habla” in Qina, and “Dawwaar” in Asyut. Often, the fishermen themselves did not know these variances, or knew only of one or two names but not all. For such difficult variations I found help only from well-experienced fishermen who traveled a lot in fishing trips around the locality, and especially those older in age, such as Masters Fayez and Saber, two respected and highly esteemed fishermen whom I was honored to know and interview in Southern Egypt.

In some cases, certain terms may seem akin or identical to normal language, but in these cases the way and the context in which they are being used will be special. For example, the common everyday language word “Darb” (=hit), is used in Southern Egypt by fishermen to describe the process of striking the Nile’s surface with the wooden pole to scare the fish away toward the net. And here, we will find that all such “verbs” that have such a special nature, will almost always have other unique names in other localities. And in this particular case, this same normal verb “Darb” has other equivalents, including “Ghazghaza” in the same locality of Southern Egypt, “Gousha” or “Tatwees” in Lake Brollos, “Tatfeesh” in the Red Sea and Northern Egypt, “Karkaba” in Seuz and Lake Manzala, “Tahgeer” in the jargon of Sinai’s Bedouins, and “Natkh” or “Dobbaka” in Fayyum; the last term being closely related to the “Dabka”, which is a famous Levantine dance in which dancers stomp the ground strongly with their feet.

In some other cases, providing a definition to certain terms was not as much easy and straightforward as it may appear, something which I consider to stand evidence of the remarkable degree of creativity and expressiveness of the Egyptian language and collective social consciousness, rather than the opposite, that is, the absence of accuracy and clarity as some may consider. A term such as “El-Ma’ouna” for example, widely used at the high-dam lake in the extreme south of Egypt; this term may refer to (1) a certain kind of a slightly big boat that is being propelled by a motor, (2) the activity of tradesmen who roam the lake in these boats to exchange goods, such as food, cigarettes, etc. with the fish caught by fishermen, (3) based on the Arabic etymological origin of the term, which steams from “Al-‘Aoun”, literally meaning “maintenance” but in everyday Egyptian meaning “livelihood” or “making a living”, it refers to the money that the fishermen obtain by selling their fish to the tradesmen on the boats. While this analytic perspective of the term holds, in reality and in actual usage, this term, “El-Ma’ouna”, does not refer separately to an object (the boat), or activity (trading), or situation (making a living), but always refers to them all and at the same time! This in my opinion, and that of several linguists, is considered to be a sign of the genius of language in terms of its expressive capacities and how these capacities can be employed spontaneously in a collective social manner. And here lies the true significance of a glossary such as the present one; that it is not merely a collection of interestingly-sounding strange words with the sole purpose of protecting them from extinction; but with and for certain discerning eyes and perspectives, these terms may tell us a lot of interesting and important information about the process and nature of collective social thinking, communication, and creativity in Egypt. With these same discerning eyes we today look at the text of the ancient civilizations, when sometimes nothing remains from the wreckage of the past to aid archaeologists and historians develop their perspectives regarding the activity and consciousness of ancient societies, other than texts, and all the signs and leads that remain hidden in the essence of the expressions and the terms and the words, even if unintentionally or coincidentally (aka lexical evidence). And this indeed is the true nature of language; it necessarily carry within itself many significant and profound signs of the collective activity and consciousness of Human, and especially those relating to economic activity, social communication, and the formation of concepts.

At the same time, it won’t be difficult to find numerous very accurate and specific terms, that were produced by Egyptian fishermen and boatmen to communicate about accurate and specific ideas or objects. For example, in Fayyum, and in the process of pulling the net from the lake, the one pulling the net may give to the other who is rowing the following orders: “Ekshef” (=expose), or/and “Erfaa” (=raise up). The difference between these two terms is extremely specific and minimal, and by means of such terms, fishermen manage to communicate about the very accurate requirements of the boat’s movement that will facilitate the process of pulling the net, to evade the probabilities of fish falling off the net, or having the net entangled with any object inside the water or within itself. There are also different and separate names for each and every type of plant that grows on the banks of the Nile and lakes and seas, and for those which float over or swim inside them. And in Aswan (as well as in most other places), there is a unique name for every single rope or string that binds the fragments of the boat together, or fixes the sail and its outer elements over that boat, and control their movements. That is to say, instead of just saying “plants” or “ropes”, the observation of nature, along with the need to communicate in a manner that pays much attention to details, have driven the Egyptian fishermen and boatmen to produce more than just generic descriptions and terms. This, also, is a sign and manifestation of a high level of development regarding social consciousness and communication.

At last, much of what I have been trying to demonstrate through this introduction, was for the purpose of showing the extent of variety of the terms, perhaps with an inner desire to absolve myself with regard to the many terms and expressions that this glossary must have missed. It is hardly possible for a researcher to reach a 100% result in a research of this kind, and I believe that the best result may be reached only via a decentralized approach, by means of the participation of many collectors, each in his or her own locality. And indeed I would be most pleased and thankful if anyone wished to make an addition or correction to this glossary, and I would be most happy if this research succeeded in helping others to pursue further results in the same or different domain. The most significant point, I think, is that while doing this research, I discovered that fishing and sailing were not the only public and social activities of which a wealth of unique expressions and jargon exists; almost all other traditional occupations and crafts, such as carpentry, traditional architecture, tailoring and textile work, metal work, pottery, and most importantly, agriculture and farming, and many many other fields – all of these are filled with such wealth of expressions and more than expressions. For, it aught be noted that the search after words and terms almost always lead to more than just a linguistic discovery, as I have attempted to argue in this introduction; so many profound aspects about the general economic and social consciousness and activity of the people comes directly under light through a research of this kind. And even though my interviews with fishermen and boatmen had a specific purpose, “talking breeds talking” as the Egyptian proverb says, and I ended up learning so many facts about the life and experience of fishermen in Egypt, their troubles and their suffering. No less than all, had complained to me bitterly in protest of the neglect of the state and dominance of thugs over the resources of Egypt’s waters. The filth that accumulates there killing scores of eggs and the offspring of the fish. Lake Brollos is one of the most fabulous places on Earth, a natural reserve par excellence, nothing like the mixture of the uniqueness of its weather and kindness of its people exists anywhere else on Earth; yet filth is spread out everywhere, and the massive level of poverty and hardship in which the villagers and fishermen live, stings the heart and the conscience! This, is the general deplorable and derelict reality of Egypt!

I believe that our attention to and interest in the culture of a society -and language, is one of the most significant manifestations of culture- will always reinforce our developmental perspectives and efforts toward the welfare of that society. Yet, the ongoing artificial and superficial interest in the popular culture of the Egyptian society; studying or depicting it in such a theatrical or, “touristic” manner; looking at it only within the limits of social decadence and violence, as if these were the most basic, or perhaps only manifestations or expressions of popular culture; all of this have unfortunately become the dominant pattern of dealing with popular culture in Egypt. This condition is very obviously maintained in the media, and perhaps also to some extent in the academic an cultural circles as well. While in truth, and with the exception of the State’s artificial attempt back in the 60s of the past century, we are in Egypt yet to see the rise of consciousness or, let me say “self-consciousness”, with regard to the awareness of the significance, and the very existence of popular culture and heritage in Egypt; and we still suffer a terrible condition of alienation and disconnection, from our own Egyptian culture and identity in general, and its popular aspects in particular.

Maysara Omar,

26 June 2013



So many people who were willing to give me much of their time helped create this glossary; after all, every single entry in this work was caught from the very mouth of a fisherman or boatman! I will now mention some of them, whose contributions made most of this work. I apologize for those whom I failed to document their names due to the constant movement from boat to boat and place to place!

Ashraf El-Suesi, who is also a very dear friend of mine, was the first to contribute to this work and the one with the most interest and curiosity in the idea of the research. His great experience in fishing may be considered to be the cornerstone out of which the entire research proceeded, and I am indebted to him for helping me with the collection of most terms from the Red Sea and Suez regions.

In Aswan, I spent a lot of time with Yousef in fishing trips up and down the Nile stream; these trips helped me collect a great deal of the terms from Southern Egypt. Through Yousef I managed to spend sometime in the workshop in which boats are built, and he introduced me to Masters Fayez and Saber, two great and respected fishermen from whose experience I benefited greatly, and I indeed enjoyed the time I spent with them in general.

And despite of the fact that I visited Fayyum untimely, my interviews with Ali and with Abdel Aal Ali, were more than enough to the extent that I no longer needed to revisit the region again during the fishing season.

Of all places I visited in Egypt, I was not personally effected by the kindness and generosity of the people as I was in Borg El-Brollos, at the north of Lake Brollos. I wish to thank Mr. Mohamed El-Nahhas for arranging the logistics of my trip there, and Mr. Magdi El-Dakrouri for his warm reception of me and for his efforts to connect me with fishermen there. I wish to especially thank Mr. Ayman Qedra and Mr. Hamdi Sharabi (President of the Society of Mechanized Fishing, and member of the Board of Directors of the General Union of Egypt’s Water Resources), for their contributions and assistance in the process of terms-collection despite of their time-consuming occupations.

There are many too many other fishermen and boatmen from all places in Egypt, who contributed to different sides and aspects of this work – I wish to thank them all.


Contents (only in Egyptian language)

Introduction (in Egyptian)

Fishing Methods

Fishing Tools

Construction of Boats

Types of Boats

Sailing Terms

Terms Relating to the Elements of Nature

Types and Knots of Ropes and Strings

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