The Society for Promotion for Undergraduate Research (SPUR) recently launched ‘Scitech Majlis’: Weekly group discussion session about science and technology. The name gave rise to a bit of buzz because of the use of the Urdu word majlis (مجلس, मजलिस). When I first heard it, it sounded a bit tone-deaf to me—the two words didn’t seem to lend well to compounding, but whatever.

Anyhow, I am no Urdu expert but I do know of some good places where we can look, and I went to my trusted resource, Platts’ Dictionary of Urdu, Classical Hindi and English.

 A مجلس _majlis_ (n. of place fr. جلس ’to sit’), s.f. An assembly, congregation, company, party, meeting; convivial meeting; convention, congress, council, conference;—an assembly of _ṣūfīs_ and dancing dervishes:—majlis-ḵẖāna, s.m. Assembly-room; town-hall; ball-room:—majlis-ě-raqs, s.f. A dancing-party, a ball:—majlis-ě-sarod, s.f. A concert:—majlis-ě-ʻilmī, s.f. A literary association:—majlis karnā, To convene a meeting or assembly;—(among Shīʻas) to commemorate the martyrdom of Imām Husain:—majlis-meṅ sharīk honā, To join an assembly; to attend a meeting:—mīr-majlis, s.m. The president or head of a society.

Arabic has a very nifty root system that is central to the way words are formed in that language. Words derive from three (most commonly three) consonant roots based on systematic modifications. Even if you encounter a new word, you can often get close to its meaning simply by identifying the root. Since Hindi-Urdu have loads of words from Arabic, lemme illustrate the root system using words speakers of Hindi would know.

The root SH-R-B conveys the idea associated with the English word drink. Think of Hindi words with this letter combination. Sharaab, shorba, sharbat.

Take another root, J-H-D, meaning struggle. Can you think of any words with J-H-D and referring to struggle. Jihad. You may have also heard of the term jaddojahad (eg. Badi jaddojahad ke baad hamein aazaadi haasil hui hai). A person who performs the struggle is called a mujaahid. And the Arabic plural of mujaahid is mujaahideen.

The examples are countless. S-F-R stands for travel. A traveller (analogous to the way we made mujaahid) is… musaafir. An embassy is _safaara__. _F-H-M is the root for understanding, and I’m sure you’ve heard of the Urdu word for misunderstanding, ghalat-fahmee.

K-T-B is the root for writing, giving us words like _kitaab__ _and the Arabic word for destiny, made famous by The Alchemist, maktoob (written).

Coming back to majlis then. This word is based on the root J-L-S, with the associated meaning of sittingMajlis means a council or a session. Other common words with the roots J-L-S are jalsaa and juloos. And Ashish Goel pinged me to point out that the word _Majlis _also appears in the name of a political party in Hyderabad—All India Majlis-e-Ittehad-ul Muslimeen (AIMIM/MIM), meaning All India Council of the Union of Muslims (کل ہند مجلس اتحاد المسلمين). Apart from the use of the word Majlis for council, note the same plural suffix -een that was present in mujahideen.

Next time you see a Urdu word, try to figure out its root and try to look for other words with the same set root. I’ve got several epiphanies this way, and I hope you do too.