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A-rabs and Arabs

In Baltimore, by long-standing convention, a street peddler operating a horse-drawn cart of fresh produce is called an A-rab, pronounced AY-rab. Why we are asked, in an age of greater sensitivity about derogatory ethnic terms, do we perpetuate this one?

The term A-rab or Arabber for a street peddler has a long history in Baltimore. The city has an Arabber Preservation Society, a nonprofit organization formed in 1994 that seeks to preserve this 19th-century tradition.

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The word arab in the sense of a peddler appears to derive from street arab, or, according to the unabridged Webster's New International Dictionary, a "homeless vagabond in the streets of a city or esp. an outcast boy or girl: GAMIN." The Oxford English Dictionary locates this sense of "a homeless little wanderer, a child of the street" in a citation from 1848. That's the sense in which the term can be found in the Sherlock Holmes stories from the Victorian era.

This association of wanderers with Arabs likely reflects the sense of the nomadic life historically led by the peoples on the Arabian Peninsula. By extension, the person wandering the streets has been transformed from a vagrant to a vendor. The term street arab has fallen largely into disuse over the past century.

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The Sun's insistence in its house style that the Baltimore street peddlers are to be referred to as A-rabs, not Arabs, is a means of differentiating the local patois from the ethnic term. Whatever stereotypes of Arabs may be current in American culture, the Baltimore terms, A-rab and Arabber, indicate a respect for people who work very hard to make a living, and also an affectionate respect for a local tradition.

Nevertheless, since A-rab can look jarring in headline type, we are revising our stylebook to give preference to the alternative Arabber.

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