‘Istikan’: Arabic word for tea cup has a surprising origin

The word, used mostly in Iraq, is often mistakenly thought to have Turkish or Farsi origins

Istikan is the Arabic word for a kind of tea cup.
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Language is organic, soaking up a range of influences and adapting to the people who use it. Often, words and phrases we think of as authentic actually have complicated origins.

Arabic has a plethora of examples when it comes to this linguistic phenomena. Given Arabic's dexterity and the multi-cultural history of the region, many Arabic words have unexpected roots.

Take our Arabic word of the week, istikan, which is the name of a type of cup distinguished from other drinking vessels by a number of characteristics. There are several words that refer to cups that work across modern Arabic and across dialects.

To start off with, glass, colloquially, or a qadah in classic Arabic, is an umbrella term for any type of drinking vessel. A finjan is either a small cylinder-shaped or tea cup-shaped vessel, available with or without a handle, that is used for drinking coffee. A koub is more of a typical tea cup or mug with a saucer.

Istikan is the most distinctive of the cup family. Solely used for drinking tea, an istikan is traditionally made from glass and designed to be thin-rimmed and wider at the top, before curving inwards and opening up at the base.

This curved design makes the istikan particularly pleasing to the eye and sets are often stored so that they double as decorative objects.

An istikan can have a decorative pattern on its surface, either through glass-blowing techniques or from ornate painted designs, often in golden hues.

While an istikan stands out for its shape and decorative elements, there’s another reason why it is so fascinating. The word istikan is used mostly in Iraq, where, compared with the wider Arab region, the population has more tea drinkers than coffee drinkers.

Often mistaken as being Turkish or Farsi in origin, there is one theory that the word istikan stems from when the British colonised Iraq for 18 years, although this has been discounted by many. As big tea drinkers themselves, the British were fascinated by the little tea cups used for drinking the hot beverage and are rumoured to have referred to them as an "east tea can”. Some speculate that these three words were combined and became istikan.

Another theory is that the word's origins are Russian. Stakan in Russian refers to a cylindrical drinking vessel without a handle, made of glass and usually used for drinking water. The word istikan could have also come from the name of the city of Astrakhan in southern Russia, where small glass cups are manufactured.

The city, which has through history been influenced by the Ottoman empire as well as the Safavid Persian and Mughal Indian cultures, derives its name from the title Haji Tarkhan, which translates as "the king who has visited Mecca".

Scroll through the gallery below to see The National's pick of Arabic words of the week

Updated: November 20, 2022, 7:51 AM