History Languages

Muslims Said It First: “Magazine”

There are dozens of ordinary ‘English’ words that originally came from languages historically associated with Islam, such as Arabic, Persian and Urdu. 

Muslims have never been strangers to the West; we are as inseparable from its culture, history & heritage as our words are from its languages. And our contribution to its development can be found in any dictionary.

Mansoor Dahri, UK

Image on right © Shutterstock

I’ve always wondered why the word ‘magazine’ has two totally different meanings.

It can refer to this:

1. a periodical publication containing articles and illustrations, often on a particular subject or aimed at a particular readership e.g. ‘a women’s weekly magazine’.

But it can also refer to this:

2. a container or detachable receptacle for holding a supply of cartridges to be fed automatically to the breech of a gun e.g. ‘he took the machine gun and a spare magazine’.

We all know that the written word can be a powerful weapon but this is perhaps taking it a little too far. So why does ‘magazine’ have such completely different meanings?

Is there really some deep symbolic connection between the might of a free press and the force of firearms?

To find out, let’s take a look at when each of the two meanings was first used:

The modern military sense was used by 1868, when ‘magazine’ could be used to refer to a cartridge chamber in a repeating rifle. It then came to eventually be used for any repeating firearm. For those of you who don’t know, a repeating firearm is any firearm (either a handgun or long gun) that you can fire repeatedly before having to reload it with new ammunition by hand.

In contrast, 1731 was the first year in which ‘magazine’ was used to refer to a print periodical or publication. The first such periodical, called ‘The Gentleman’s Magazine, was a long-running and popular English magazine.

But why did The Gentleman’s Magazine use the word ‘magazine’ in the first place? And what’s the link with rifle cartridges?

The word ‘magazine’ first entered the English language in the 1580s from the French word ‘magasin’ which means ‘warehouse, depot, store’. For a long time after the 1580s, the word magazine had the same meaning of ‘warehouse’ or ‘place for storing goods’ in English.

Eventually, ‘magazine’ came to be used in particular to mean ‘a place for storing military ammunition’. Over time, instead of a proper large storage place, ‘magazine’ came to mean even a small storage place for ammunition or bullets, which is one of the modern meanings.

So a word used for large general-storage warehouses eventually came to be used for fairly small and compact storage places for ammunition. But what about the print meaning? How does a warehouse become the same thing as The Review of Religions?

Blame it on The Gentleman’s Magazine. They were the first to use ‘magazine’ to refer to print periodicals.

But why?

It’s because The Gentleman’s Magazine was supposed to be a ‘magazine’ or ‘storehouse’ of essays and articles from other publications. They would search through books and pamphlets and collect writings from all over the place. Topics could range from Latin poetry to commodity prices.

In fact, their motto was ‘E pluribus unum’ (‘One from many’) because of all the different places from which they got their material. As a side note, America’s official motto is also ‘E pluribus unum’ because someone liked the magazine’s motto and decided it would suit the new nation nicely.

The Gentleman’s Magazine was popular enough that other periodicals sprung up in imitation of it and also used the word ‘magazine’ to refer to themselves. In this way, ‘magazine’ gradually came to be used for all such periodicals. Like The Review of Religions.

So these days, ‘magazine’ basically refers only to print periodicals and their online counterparts or to the key components of particularly lethal weapons.

The older sense of ‘warehouse’ or ‘store’ is pretty much obsolete in English.

But not in French. Even now, they still say ‘le magasin’ in French for ‘store’ or ‘shop’.

You might be wondering: if it came into English from French, how did it get into French?

It came into French from the Italian word ‘magazzino’. In Italian, they still say ‘il magazzino’ to mean ‘warehouse’.

There’s just one more link in this chain of words and languages.

The Italian word ‘magazzino’ comes from the Arabic word ‘makhazin’ (‘مَخازِن’) which is the plural of ‘makhzan’ (‘مَخْزَن’) which means ‘storehouse’.

Other meanings include: storeroom, depository, stockroom, depot, warehouse, store, shop etc.

The word ‘makhzan’ is also present in Persian and Urdu with slightly different meanings.

Those of us who are Ahmadi Muslims might be familiar with ‘Makhzan-e-Tasaweer’ (‘مخزنِ تصاوير’) i.e. the official ‘Gallery of Pictures’ of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.

It is a website based on the physical gallery that is set up every year during the annual convention of Jalsa Salana.

The Arabic word ‘Makhzan’ comes from the root Khazana’ (‘خَزَنَ’) meaning ‘to store, to amass, to accumulate, to conceal, to stock, to keep secret, to put in safekeeping’.

This is an old and deep root in the Arabic language.

How old?

It is so old that when we see its first occurrence in a book, that book happens to be the oldest book in the Arabic language: The Holy Qur’an.

The root ‘Khazana’ is used a number of times throughout the Holy Qur’an (13 times to be precise). Here are just a few examples:

وَ قَالَ الَّذِیۡنَ فِی النَّارِ لِخَزَنَۃِ جَہَنَّمَ ادۡعُوۡا رَبَّکُمۡ یُخَفِّفۡ عَنَّا یَوۡمًا مِّنَ الۡعَذَابِ

“And those in the Fire will say to the Keepers of Hell, ‘Pray to your Lord that He may lighten for us the punishment for a day.’” (40:50)

    قَالَ اجۡعَلۡنِیۡ عَلٰی خَزَآئِنِ الۡاَرۡضِ ۚ اِنِّیۡ حَفِیۡظٌ عَلِیۡمٌ

“He said, ‘Appoint me over the treasures of the land, for I am a good keeper, and possessed of knowledge.’” (12:56)

وَ اَرۡسَلۡنَا الرِّیٰحَ لَوَاقِحَ فَاَنۡزَلۡنَا مِنَ السَّمَآءِ مَآءً فَاَسۡقَیۡنٰکُمُوۡہُ ۚ وَ مَاۤ اَنۡتُمۡ لَہٗ بِخٰزِنِیۡنَ

“And We send impregnating winds, then We send down water from the clouds, then We give it to you to drink; and you are not the ones to store it up.” (15:23)

Here in the Holy Qur’an we can see some of the first recorded instances of the root that would go on to become the word ‘magazine’.

Here lies the origin of the word that would go on to define the intellectual life of much of the modern world as well as the modern technology of mechanised firearms.

Here is the beginning of a word that is synonymous with the mass circulation of new thoughts and fresh ideas in a free society, as well as the means of defending all that.

All of this was just a seed 1400 years ago in a few verses of the Holy Qur’an.

About the author: Mansoor Dahri is an online editor for The Review of Religions. He has recently graduated from UCL in BA Ancient Languages.