Sunday, October 01, 2006

Street Arab/Arab Street

My friend John and I have been carrying on an amiable and pointless discussion about the terms “Street Arab” and “Arab Street.” They aren’t they same. Are they somehow related?

Hm. My 1971 Oxford English Dictionary dodes recognize “street arab” as a “Special comb.” Under “Street:” “street Arab (also written with a small a), a homeless vagrant (usually a child).” Returning the compliment, the third substantive definition of “Arab” reads: “(Orig. Arab of the City, City Arab, street Arab) A homeless little wanderer; a child of the street.” defaults to Jacob Riis, How the Other Half Lives (1890), the great chronicle of life among the New York poor. Riis says (inter alia):

The Street Arab is as much of an institution in New York as Newspaper Row, to which he gravitates naturally, following his Bohemian instinct. Crowded out of the tenements to shift for himself, and quite ready to do it, he meets there the host of adventurous runaways from every State in the Union and from across the sea, whom New York attracts with a queer fascination, as it attracts the older emigrants from all parts of the world. … The Street Arab has all the faults and all the virtues of the lawless life he leads. Vagabond that he is, acknowledging no authority and owing no allegiance to anybody or anything, with his grimy fist raised against society whenever it tries to coerce him, he is as bright ‘and sharp as the weasel, which, among all the predatory beasts, he most resembles His sturdy independence, love of freedom and absolute self-reliance, together with his rude sense of justice that enables him to govern his little community, not always in accordance with municipal law or city ordinances, but often a good deal closer to the saving line of “doing to others as one would be done by”—these are strong handles by which those who know how can catch the boy and make him useful.

John said he was sure "street arab" was in Sherlock Holmes and sure enough, Google confirms. I said I bet I could find it in Balzac and I did, but wait—Balzac wrote French, and a check of my French edition of Le père Goriot suggests that the original French is “gamin.” But for English “gamin,” (WordNet) gives: “a homeless child who has been abandoned and roams the streets. Synonyms: street arab,” so we are pretty much back where we started.

Arab street” turns out to be a bit more elusive. Google “dict arab street” and you get with a page on “Arab Street” in Singapore (link). My 1971 OED doesn’t have "Arab street," but the 1987 supp speaks of “the street” as “regarded loosely as the realm of the common people and esp. as the source of popular political support. [see *Nazi sb.].” Flip to “Nazi” and we find: "The Democrats have not been able to deal with the Nazi because of his mastery of the Street. From W. Lewis Hitler 57 (1931).”

Now that I think of it, “street” seems more promising than “Arab.” Think “on the street” as dead broke (cf. “Grub Street,” as not quite dead broke). Or “on the street” versus “in prison”= “free.” Or Easy Street, Queer Street, and certainly I suppose there is some resonance between “Street Arab” and “Arab Street,” but it seems to be the “street” that is a noisy, busy, froward and alluring place all on its own.

1 comment:

Brian Fox said...

I had first seen the term in a Study in Scarlet and could not find an origin for its use.

Your article assuaged my interest, thanks.