No Arabic word for bluff?

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Those familiar with our history of "No word for X" posts will appreciate Haider Ala Hamoudi's essay "The Dangers of Pop Linguistics: Arab Bluffs and Arab Compromise", posted at Islamic Law in Our Times, 3/6/2012. Some useful background is provided by Geoff Nunberg's Fresh Air commentary "Meetings of the minds", 5/29/2003, which discusses the original claim that Arabic has no word for compromise.  Prof. Hamoudi muses:

I wouldn't spend time on something so silly except in reading the Arabic papers today I saw a rather striking set of translations of Barack Obama's interview in the Atlantic monthly with I think Jeffrey Goldberg, the substance of which I had already read in English. But Obama says in it something to the effect of "as President, I don't bluff" and in Arabic media reports I read and heard, two verbs were used.  One was خدع which means to deceive, and one was مزح which means to joke around.  So "I'm not deceiving you" or "I'm not joking."

Yet of course as with "compromise" neither is perfect, and as I thought about it, I cannot think of an Arabic equivalent to "bluff" that works particularly well.  To bluster and threaten, that is, without much of an intent or an ability (only need one or the other) to carry forward on the threat.  So, we don't have compromise so we cannot compromise the theory goes, but then again we don't have "bluff" either, so do we not bluff?

The Arabs by now should be smiling, because all we do is bluff.  Saddam bluffed about his rivers of blood and chemical weapons, Qaddafi about his ability to bring forward tens of thousands of soldiers to repel the Libyan rebels, Syria about its strength now.  Get into a car accident in Iraq, chances are someone will threaten to shoot you at some point, hardly something to get very excited about on its own.  Try to buy a carpet, you'll be told it'll be gone in an hour to the next buyer if you don't act now.  We're the bluffers, nobody bluffs more than us, though it's not hard to bluff better since at times we're bluffing about something that could not possibly be the case (the Ba'ath insisting it was repelling the US when there were sightings of tanks all around Baghdad).

But we have no word for it.

[Tip of the hat to Ted McClure]


  1. jfruh said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 4:38 pm

    Well, since the conversation is about war with Iran, maybe the better question is how you'd say it in Farsi.

  2. blahedo said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 5:31 pm

    When Arabs play poker, which word do they use to describe bluffing there? In that situation the word "bluff" borders on a technical term or jargon, so they must have a word (or phrase, of course) to name it. That might be a fruitful place to look for an appropriate translation for Obama's "bluff" (which, even in English, evokes a poker bluff even when discussing non-card-related topics like political diplomacy).

  3. Troy S. said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 5:43 pm

    @jfruh Persians certainly use the word بلف "bolof" which is a pretty straightforward loan of the English "bluff," so they've at least learned the concept from us English speakers.

  4. Henning Makholm said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 5:44 pm

    For that matter, which other, languages have an indigenous morpheme for bluffing? In Danish we have "at bluffe", which is a recent enough loan from English that the noun form is spelled "bluff" even though native words never have final consonants doubled.

    The idea of feigning a stronger position that you have is surely universal and older than time. But I wonder whether the existence of a separate word for it in English can be connected to the Wild West mythos, which makes the ability to bluff convincingly into a macho virtue rather than a characteristic of tricksters?

  5. Sili said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 6:02 pm

    The beauty about pop-linguistics, is that it's so easy to just make something up:

    "Just as fish are unaware of the water, so Arabs are such inveterate bluffers that they do not have a word for 'bluff', for they do not need a name for the constant, everyday background of their world."

  6. Fernando Colina said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 6:59 pm

    @Henning Makholm – Spanish (at least European Spanish) has the word "farol.": un farol = a bluff. Echarse un farol = to bluff. The meaning is very close to the English meaning, if not identical. It's what we use when we play poker. However, the most common meaning of the word "farol" is "lantern." I have no idea how the the two meanings relate.

  7. The Ridger said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 7:49 pm

    The context of the statement may be Iran, but the prompt was *Arabic* translations, so Farsi doesn't enter into it.

  8. Dan Milton said,

    March 7, 2012 @ 9:10 pm

    So how did English speakers express the concept of bluffing before poker was invented, around 1830?

  9. Victor said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 1:01 am

    I don't speak Arabic, but I'm quite certain that this is an over-simplification of the issue. What's Arabic translation for "sabre-rattling"? Because we've seen a lot of that from Arabic speaking leaders and, unlike US politicians, all Arabic speakers did have that concept down cold. No one outside the US administration took "The mother of all battles" threat seriously. Iraqis knew what it meant and so did Iraq's Arab-speaking neighbors.

  10. Adam said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 4:44 am

    NEWS FLASH: fish have no word for "water"!!!

  11. Ginger Yellow said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 8:39 am

    When Arabs play poker, which word do they use to describe bluffing there? In that situation the word "bluff" borders on a technical term or jargon, so they must have a word (or phrase, of course) to name it.
    Gambling, and hence poker, is haram in Islam – though of course some non-Muslim (and for that matter some Muslim) Arabs surely play it.

  12. Colin John said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 8:42 am

    The most common French word is 'bluffer' in my experience. Certainly used in card games and as a pretty close translation in most circumstances.

  13. Mark Etherton said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 8:55 am

    @Dan Milton

    According to the OED, this sense of bluff arises from the obsolete sense of the noun as blinkers for a horse. Citations for the verb meaning 'to blindfold or hoodwink' go back to C17, but the noun used in the technical poker sense is from the mid-C19 and clearly US in origin.

  14. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 10:12 am

    The ECTACO dictionary translates "saber-rattling" as صوت السيف (wonder how that will show up), which appears to contain the word for "saber".

    Surely there's an Arabic expression for "empty threat" or "make an empty threat", and I would think the translators of Obama's remark could have used that. Google Translate renders "I do not make empty threats" as أنا لا تجعل تهديدات فارغة

  15. Jerry Friedman said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 10:13 am

    Well, maybe "empty threat" isn't quite the same thing. Bluffing might be more implication than direct statement.

  16. Yasser AlDimashqi said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 10:44 am

    Absolutely wrong! where did you throw away the word (Mobalegh and mobalaghah!!) you need to sharpen your Arabic skills to make such calls. we have a word called (Mobalegh) and that is equal to bluffing or overblow and the word mobalehg is well used and can be put to discredit someone assessment or statement. The article writer obviously either attacking Arabs or he is not knowledgeable .. example, I can shut someone down if he starts bluffing by saying to him ( no way man, you are just “mobalegh” ) or I can discredit a statement by saying this statement is mobalagha (which means it is a bluff) I am an Arab from the heart of Damascus

  17. Adrian said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 11:23 am

    Although it seems odd that languages don't have individual words for certain closely defined concepts, and odder still if that concept seems common in the culture of the area where the language is spoken, this doesn't strike me as an uncommon phenomenon. Nor is it uncommon for a particular language, quite often English (but I can think of plenty of examples from French, and some from other languages), to come up with a term for that concept, and for that word then to circumnavigate the globe.

    A bluff is a type of lie or cheating, and those words were adequate until someone came along with a more specific word. Even though most countries have adopted the word "bluff", I'm sure that that small groups of people have come up with alternative terms. However, it is more likely for terms to spread top-down than bottom-up, so those local terms fail while transnational terms succeed.

  18. army1987 said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 11:24 am

    Italian uses bluff of course, but I suspect it's not-so-recent, given that in this word (as in club and rugby) the English STRUT vowel is mapped to Italian /E/, whereas it's /a/ or /O/ in pretty much all other such loanwords. I suspect it's a result of Italian having borrowed through French rather than directly from English. (I've read that French used to map –or still maps, I can't remember– English STRUT to their /œ/, which would of course map to Italian /E/ — except when it maps to /O/ ;-).)

  19. Adrian said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 11:27 am

    To "lie" and "cheat" I should've added "pretend", which is probably the closest synonym, and the best fit for Obama's meaning. I'm sure Arabic has a word for "pretend".

  20. army1987 said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 11:27 am

    Huh, I wandered a bit, but my point was that Italian bluff is likely to be at least one century old. (Still a loanword, though.)

  21. grackle said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 12:44 pm

    Both the Hind/Badawi Dictionary of Egyptian Arabic and the Hans Wehr Dictionary show the root ba la fa (بلف) with the primary definition “to bluff” The Wehr dictionary has a 1961 date for initial copyright, so the borrowing probably precedes that date.

  22. Chandra said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 3:14 pm

    @Fernando Colina – Interesting! I wonder if it has any relation to the origins of the term "gaslighting"?

  23. Mr Punch said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 4:07 pm

    The old meaning of "bluff" (blinkers) survives in "blind man's bluff." From the comments above, it certainly seems to me that the current meaning, and its use in numerous languages, derives from poker.

  24. Kylopod said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 5:41 pm

    I see this as more a matter of cultural references than linguistic gaps. For example, if a country doesn't have baseball, people there won't naturally intuit an expression like "throwing a curveball." They're capable of understanding it, but it will require a more detailed explanation. No single word or expression will be enough. The problem this poses for translation isn't due so much to the language's limitations as to the speakers' cultural knowledge of a particular concept.

  25. D.O. said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 6:08 pm

    Russian has /blef/ for bluff (noun) and /blefovat/ for bluff (verb), but my feeling is that phrase with the meaning empty threat is used more often.

  26. Ray Girvan said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 9:16 pm

    @Mr Punch: The old meaning of "bluff" (blinkers) survives in "blind man's bluff."

    I'm not so sure. Check out Google Books Ngram Viewer: both in UK English and US English, the dominant (and older) form has always been "blind man's buff". The OED gives the derivation of the "buff" part as coming from "buff" = "buffet, blow, stroke" (presumably because other players used to shove around the blindfolded person as part of the jolly jape).

    So overall I suspect "blind man's bluff" to be a mid 19th century eggcorn for "blind man's buff".

  27. Ray Girvan said,

    March 8, 2012 @ 9:22 pm

    Oh. I see the Eggcorn Forum arrived at the same conclusion five years ago.

  28. Whose Bluffing? | Crossroads Arabia said,

    March 9, 2012 @ 8:55 am

    […] – though its linguists are multinational and located around the globe – takes a look at the issue as well. Tweet March:09:2012 – 08:56 | Comments & Trackbacks […]

  29. Chandra said,

    March 9, 2012 @ 12:26 pm

    @Ray Girvan – That makes a lot more sense as the original name of the game, because of course the blindfold isn't a blind man's bluff – as an actual blind man wouldn't need one – it's a seeing man's bluff.

  30. linguistics | Pearltrees said,

    March 9, 2012 @ 8:28 pm

    […] Those familiar with our history of "No word for X" posts will appreciate Haider Ala Hamoudi 's essay " The Dangers of Pop Linguistics: Arab Bluffs and Arab Compromise ", posted at Islamic Law in Our Times , 3/6/2012. Language Log » No Arabic word for bluff? […]

  31. Katie said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 4:30 am


    "Mobalagha" simply means "exaggeration". While it is true that bluffing often involves exaggeration, the word refers to a much more specific maneuver.

    Jerry Friedman,

    That Google Translate result isn't even grammatical. I'm not sure I can think of an idiomatic way to say "empty threat" in Arabic, but the literal translation would be reasonably clear, if awkward.

    If I had to translate Obama's comment, I would probably go with "ana la al'ab" (sorry, too lazy to try typing in Arabic on my Mac), meaning "I don't play."

  32. Circe said,

    March 10, 2012 @ 4:22 pm

    I am a native Hindi speaker, and I can't of the top of my head think of a Hindi word accurately reflecting the meaning of "I am not bluffing". Personally I would have translated that as "मैं मज़ाक नहीं कर रहा हूँ" which literally means "I am not joking". However, there is an informal idiomatic phrase, which quite accurately captures the meaning: "मैं गीदड़ भभकी नहीं दे रहा हूँ", which literally translates to "I am not giving a jackal-howl".

  33. Antariksh Bothale said,

    March 19, 2012 @ 6:51 am

    @Circe, I don't think गीदड़ भभकी really captures the meaning of bluffing. गीदड़ भभकी is more like the barking in "Barking dogs seldom bite", which I don't perceive the same as bluffing.

  34. nqa2 said,

    June 26, 2014 @ 12:33 am

    I can't speak for Pullum, but if somebody brings me lobsters, I won't juggle them, I'll eat them!

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