The origin of the word “admiral”: from the history of naval terms

It would seem that the etymology of the naval rank “admiral” has long been clarified and taken apart to pieces. Therefore, it is not subject to any doubts and discussions. Nevertheless, disputes about the origin of this well-known and familiar word to all of us do not stop.

The main and firmly included in the absolute majority of explanatory and terminological dictionaries version is the assertion of the Arabic roots of the title, which has been the highest for naval sailors since about the 12th century. Here, they say, everything is simple: the local sheikhs called their commanders of the flotillas nothing other than amīr al-baḥr, “amur al-bakhr”. “Amir” (or “emir”) – prince, sovereign, ruler. “Bahr” – of course, the sea, it is even present in the name of one of the most oil-bearing countries in the Middle East. Therefore, it turns out “sea prince” or “lord of the seas.”

Well, later the Dutch, who liked this word, picked it up and altered it in their own way, turned it into an admiraal. The French have got accustomed to amiral, admiral.

It is believed that this title was brought to Mother Russia by Peter the Great, who built the fleet in the Dutch manner and, accordingly, derived all the terminology from there. It would seem that everything is very clear and there is nothing to argue about. However, one should not rush to final conclusions.

Alternative versions of the origin of the word “admiral”

As usual, there were those who began to build on this occasion alternative versions, not wanting to give priority to the sheikhs and emirs. In principle, some of their arguments sound logical. For example, this: the representatives of which people were the most genuine navigators of antiquity? Greeks? Let’s look for “admiral’s roots” from them! Imagine, you have found: aλμυρός “admiros” – this is how “salty” sounds in Greek. And what can a real admiral be, if not salted by sea waves? Consonant. By the way, there are ruins of a city with this name in sunny Hellas. And this city, judging by the chronicles, was famous just for its ports and fleets.

Other enthusiasts try to argue that the title for someone who leads a mighty and formidable navy could only have been born in the Roman Empire. And “admiral” is actually nothing more than a modified Latin admirabilis (“admirabilis”), that is, “wonderful”, “delightful”, “amazing”. Supporters of this version insist that the Romans, inclined (especially closer to the decline of their empire) to pomp and luxury, must have dressed their naval “commanders” so richly and magnificently that they really could have amazed the imagination – at least with the brilliance of their gilded armor and splendor sultans on helmets.

However, much more attention, perhaps, deserves the research of those researchers who drew attention to a very interesting detail in ancient texts, both Arabic and European. For example, in one Spanish document of the 13th century we meet “almiraje de la mar”. That is … “naval admiral”! It turns out that there were also land ones? The text of the famous “Song of Roland”, which mentions “Si li tramist li amiralz Galafes” – “Admiral of Galafia”, makes us think about this. Galafia is the ancient name of the current Syrian city of Aleppo. It turns out that the term “admiral” was not initially tied to the sea?

Very much like that. One more proof – the title of the first admiral of the future “mistress of the seas” of England, given to William de Leibourne in the 13th century, was “Amiral de la Mer du Roy d’Angleterre”. Again, we see a direct clarification that this rank has to do with the fleet and the sea.

The closest to the truth can be considered the opinion that the term we are talking about originally meant simply “emir” – the commander-in-chief of large military forces. Most likely, the “admiral” we are accustomed to can indeed originate in Arabic, but from the name amīr al-ʻālī – “supreme emir”. Well, the naval sound came to him later, which, however, in no way can diminish the trepidation and respect experienced by all naval sailors before this title.

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