I started my morning with a little dose of Arabic; I put sugar (Sp. el azúcar) in my tea and wiped my face with a cotton (Sp. el algodón) pad.
Usually when I notice that words have similar forms in Spanish and English, it’s a fairly safe bet to assume that they both come ultimately from a common Latin root, even if the English word may have waltzed in from French or another romance language. (Although somehow I suspect the French words sashayed* in, rather than waltzing.) In the case of sugar/azúcar and cotton/algodón, that’s not true. They have another common ancestor—Arabic.
Language is often spread when empires grow (generally through invasion, but let’s not stray into the political). In the case of Spanish, the Moorish (i.e., Arab) occupation of the Iberian Peninsula lasted nearly 800 years, from the early 8th to the late 15th century. For much of that time, I suspect the Moors just called it “living there,” but the Spaniards never saw it that way. Their culture survived, absorbing along the way many Arabic influences in language, cuisine, and architecture.
There are tons of Arabic-root words in Spanish, and when you see that the first syllable is “al,” that typically indicates Arabic origin. “Al” was then, as it is now, the definite article. You probably encounter this article almost every day, when you hear in the news about Al-Qaeda (Ar. the base) or Al Jazeera (Ar. the island). In Spain, that fluffy white substance, al godón, (whatever the Arabic form of the word was at the time) was adopted as el algodón. To this day, it carries around that double definite article. We don’t see the full article in “azúcar,” but the article particle (!) remains.
The English words “sugar” and “cotton” came to us from the Arabic via Italian, from which they were adopted by French, and finally into English. It was a circuitous route through history and geography, but well worth the wait for soft sheets and sweet treats. It makes me wonder, though. If we had somehow incorporated “sugar” into our language but not “cotton,” what we would call cotton candy?
*from Fr. chassé, a slide-jump move in ballet