Arabic has a myriad abstract nouns that have acquired distinctively cultural meanings in addition to their lexical meanings and other semantic variations. The same word, or related variants of it, can have multiple meanings—some very concrete, others totally abstract. They mean so many things that they’re almost impossible to translate on their own, though they can be fully and easily comprehensible taken in context.
Strong and tall
Sharaf is the root of a whole range of verbs, nouns and adjectives, and divides into various groups with related meanings—many of them to do with height, loftiness, strength or importance—depending on the vowel in the middle of the word: a, u or i.
If you take the basic verb form of the word, sharafa, and apply it to a wall, for instance, it means to fortify that wall. Applied to a man, it means “to be raised up” or “to surpass someone in glory or rank.” Another verb form, sharufa, when applied to a man, means “to be high-born, noble, illustrious or eminent.” Applied to a place, it means “to be elevated or high up.” Yet another verb form, sharifa, means “to command or be superior to something.” Sharrifuna means “Honor us by visiting us”—a basic form of Arab hospitality—while tasharrafna means “I’m honored to meet you,” or “enchanté.”
Top of the heap
Sharaf the abstract noun is all about high-flown concepts: it can mean honor, dignity, glory, nobility, distinction, eminence, high rank—and by extension, honesty, integrity and uprightness. Sharaf in a woman is apparently the most elevated and important thing about her: her virginity. Bi (“in”) sharaf means “in honor of.” If sharaf is preceded by the particle that implies an oath or swearing, it means “on my word of honor.”
Getting a little more concrete, the noun form shurfah also implies honor or high rank, but, when describing a wall, it means specifically the topmost part: a battlement, a balcony or veranda, and a loge or box in a theater. A sharafah, still going with the upraised theme, is a terrace.
Sharif (yes, as in movie star and world-class bridge player Omar), along the same lines, implies nobility and breeding: a nobleman, as Omar Sharif (born Michel Dimitri Shalhoub!) portrayed Sherif Ali in the film of Lawrence of Arabia. It’s a powerful adjective that can also mean “impregnable,” “mighty” and “invincible.” And Sharif has always been the title of the descendants of Mohammed, as well as the title of the Governor of Mecca (in Ottoman times, when Mecca had a governor).
In literature, sharif indicates a writer’s high-flown, lofty, serious intentions—an example of sharif meaning would be a verse like this:
He steadied his foot
in the swamp of death
and said to it:
under the soles of your feet.
Compare this to a poem with a very non-sharif meaning:
Who has ever seen anyone
like my beloved,
who resembles the moon
when she appears.
If she enters the house today,
her buttocks will follow
Sharif or not sharif? The choice is yours.