From tangerines, to Algerines. With a capital A, the word Algerine is a fairly old-fashioned word for an inhabitant of Algeria. Dating from the mid seventeenth century in English, Algerine has now been all but entirely replaced by the more familiar Algerian – which is perhaps for the best, as in the nineteenth century the word picked up an unusual and oddly negative connotation:
Algerines (theatrical), performers who bully the manager of a theatre when the salaries are not paid. Also petty money-borrowers.
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So how, or why, did Algerine come to be another word for a harrying money-chaser – or, as another dictionary of nineteenth-century slang put it, a ‘hard-up borrower of petty sums’? Well, perhaps the answer lies in an even earlier definition from English slang:
Rum gaggers. Cheats who tell wonderful stories of their sufferings at sea, or when taken by the Algerines.
Francis Grose, A Classical Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1785) Thanks to its location on Africa’s Mediterranean coast, Algeria gained a reputation for piracy in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. As a result, the ‘Algerines’ that harry the dishonest ‘rum gaggers’ described here by Francis Grose are not merely Algerian nationals, but bloodthirsty pirates and seafaring bandits. From there, the term fell into theatrical slang, and so it’s likely that the Algerines braying at the stage manager’s door were merely being likened to the money-hunting pirates who would once have chased down merchant ships in the Mediterranean. (Although it’s tempting to think that perhaps an actor who played a piratical Algerine in some nineteenth-century stage play might have been especially good at extracting the cast’s dues.)
As with its western neighbour Morocco, we don’t owe an awful lot of our language to Algeria but compared to some of the other countries on the African continent, it has given us more than we might expect.
Bougie, for instance, is an eighteenth-century word for a wax candle, whose name is an anglicised corruption of the name of the wax-producing city of Bejaia on Algeria’s Mediterranean coast. A jazerant or jesserant was a light suit of armour from the medieval period; probably of Moorish or Saracen origin, its name derives from the Arabic name for Algiers, al-Jazair.t And mazagran is a traditional Algerian iced coffee, or else the thick earthenware vessel in which it’s served, its name commemorating the Battle of Mazagran in 1840, around the same time that the drink became popular among French troops in North Africa.
Likewise, a dommerer, according to Grose, was ‘a beggar pretending that his tongue has been cut out by the Algerines’.
Al-Jazair literally means ‘the islands’ in Arabic – a reference to a small chain of four islets lying off (and now partly connected to) the coast of Algiers. Curiously, Algeria takes its name from its capital city, Algiers, not the other way around. When the region fell under French rule in 1830, Algiers was chosen as its capital and the surrounding area was named Algeria after it.