The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The Linguistics of Kifaya

William Safire on the word Kifaya in his On Language column in the NY Times Magazine:

The word means ''enough.'' The Arabic verbal root is kafa, ''to be satisfied.'' In Hans Wehr's Dictionary of Modern Written Arabic, it has the senses of ''sufficient amount'' and ''that which suffices for performing a duty.'' Munther Younes, coordinator of the Arabic program at Cornell, says that verbs derived from the same root are in the Koran, as in the sense of ''it is enough for you to have God as a companion or protector.''

David S. Powers, professor of Islamic history and law at Cornell, says he thinks that the word as used today is in the nature of what linguists call a calque, a borrowing from another language in literal translation (much as English borrowed Ãœbermensch from the German and translated it as superman). ''In politics, in modern culture,'' Powers says, ''we say, 'Enough!' Kifaya is the Arabic equivalent of that. It's a standard word in Arabic now being used in a political context, probably a modern phenomenon. It suggests there may be some creative linguistic development.''


In English, enough grew out of enow to become an adjective synonymous with ''sufficient.'' It can also be used as an adverb to disparage, as in Shakespeare's ''An honest fellow enough . . . but he has not so much brain as ear-wax.'' In politics, when Theodore Roosevelt declined nomination for a third term in 1908, The New York Times reported that he'd ''had enough.'' (Teddy later changed his mind.) And the G.O.P. used the slogan ''Had Enough?'' against Harry Truman in the midterm election of 1946 and elected the first Republican Congress since Hoover.

The most powerful use of the word in oratory was delivered in English by a man from the Middle East. At a signing ceremony on the White House lawn in 1993, after a reluctant handshake with the P.L.O.'s Yasir Arafat, Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin of Israel said: ''We, the soldiers who have returned from battles stained with blood; we who have seen our relatives and friends killed before our eyes . . . we who have fought against you, the Palestinians, we say to you today in a loud and a clear voice: enough of blood and tears. Enough!''

That's the new, emphatic sense that Arabs have given their Arabic kifaya.