The Grammarphobia Blog

A mecca for music

Q: My question pertains to the letters “d” and “m.” Has there ever been a time when they were interchangeable between English and Arabic? For example, the English prefix “deca” and the holy city of Mecca.

A: There’s no correspondence between the letter “d” in English and the Arabic equivalent of “m,” but that’s only the beginning of the story..

The Saudi Arabian holy city of Mecca, whose name (with a lower-case “m”) has become a secular synonym in English for an ideal destination, is Makka or Makkah in Arabic.

The name’s origin is uncertain but it might be related to the Arabic mahrab or “sanctuary,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. There are other theories as well.

“Deca” and “dec,” the English prefixes meaning ten, come from the Greek deka. No connection with Arabic here.

However, there does seem to be an etymological connection between the holy city of Mecca and the record label Decca. It goes back to Decca’s founding in Britain.

The trademark “Decca” was created in 1914 by an Englishman named Wilfred S. Samuel of Barnett Samuel & Sons, a British manufacturer of musical instruments.

Samuel patented a portable record player he named the Decca Dulcephone, which became popular with British troops sent overseas during World War I. His son Edgar later wrote about the origin of the name:

“He told me that he wanted a word for exports, which could be easily recognised by illiterates and which would have the same pronunciation in all languages. It seems to have been a merger of Mecca with the initial D of their logo ‘Dulcet,’ or their trademark ‘Dulcephone.’”

Decca Records was established in 1929 when Barnett Samuel & Sons, renamed Decca Gramophone, was sold to Edward Lewis.

Decca went on to become one of the largest record labels in the world. Wilfred Samuel, meanwhile, became a scholar of Jewish history (as did his son Edgar) and a founder of the Jewish Museum in London.

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