Bistraynti `Alaykun

I’d like to thank all of the blog’s readers for following along this year and contributing to a wonderful discussion. I’m looking forward to what will certainly be a momentous 2010: municipal elections, disintegrating alliances, potential progress on the Syrian-Israeli peace talks, more tail-chasing on abolishing confessionalism, and a few more Guinness world records.

I leave you with a little philological excursus on the meaning of “bistraynti `alayk”, the traditional greeting that every Lebanese kid learns to scream at the top of his/her lungs on New Year’s morning. I’ve always wondered about the etymology of this term, and I recently stumbled upon an intriguing theory. If anyone can confirm or refute it (paging my friend Ahmad…), please weigh in.

Happy New Year’s!!!


In Lebanon, and I am told that it is also the case among Christians in Jordan and Syria, we have a traditional new year’s greeting:

we say: bistraynte @layk/ @layke/ @laykon etc.

What this greeting means is that my *bistrayne* (i.e. new year’s gift) is on you, [so] you have to give me the gift.

One has to be quick so as to get the others to give the gift.

Anis Frayha explains the term as being connected with the Roman goddess Strenae, to whom he says people gave gifts on the new year.

[QN: Actually, the goddess’s name is Strenua; the word “strenae” refers to the gifts that Romans exchanged on January 1st]

I have had a hard time finding an etymology for this term. Frayha’s explanation seems to be acceptable, but what do we do with the initial *b* in *bistrayne*.

One possibility culd be to consider *b* as the English *by God*. cp. to Lebanese (considered to be vulgar nowadays) *balla* meaning *by God* so our term becomes *b-strayne* = by Strenae => becomes lexicalized to gift. It istreated as any feminine noun: => bistraynt- in construct state.

The element *ay* may be concieved of as a deminutive. But could also be a diphthongisation of the *e* in *Strenae* (if Frayha’s explanation holds).

The only term (that I have found) that comes close is the combination of *b* + *str* (found in Hebrew and Syriac), yet I do not see the semantic connection though between these two terms.

Any idea?

Elie Wardini (Department for East-European and Oriental Studies, University of Oslo)
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12 thoughts on “Bistraynti `Alaykun

  1. You can find a closer explanation..

    ESTRENE. s. f. Present qu’on a accoustumé de faire le premier jour de l’année. Je vous donne cela en bonne estrene. donner les estrenes. il a eu ses estrenes, de belles estrenes. En ce sens il est plus ordinaire au pluriel.

    Posted by miltonius | January 1, 2010, 7:29 am
  2. The modern equivalent of this is the French gifts given in the New Year called “Les Etrennes de Nouvel An”.

    Bistraynte 3alaykoun killkon 🙂


    Posted by Nadim Shehadi | January 1, 2010, 10:59 am
  3. Miltonius

    The French word (and its equivalents in Provencal, Wallon, Spanish, and Italian) all derive from the Latin word strena, to which Mr. Wardini refers.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | January 1, 2010, 11:06 am
  4. QN
    If it is true that this expression is confined primarily to some Christians in Lebanon and Syria then wouldn’t it be more likely that the Bistraynie is derived from the French who exercised their mandate over Syria and Lebanon rather than to take it all the way back to the Romans. I do not doubt that the European languages can trace “etrennes” to the Romans but I am not so sure that the very limited Arabic usage of the term can be traced back for over two millenia.
    BTW, are there any major etymological references for the Arabic language?

    Posted by ghassan karam | January 1, 2010, 9:23 pm
  5. Ghassan,

    Syro-Lebanese dialect is full of loanwords from other languages, often ancient ones. That being said, it may come from French — I’m waiting for a friend who is more qualified to say, to weigh in.

    Posted by Qifa Nabki | January 1, 2010, 11:30 pm
  6. Bonne année à tous, avec ou sans étrennes!!! 🙂

    Posted by Michel | January 2, 2010, 4:36 am
  7. There is no language or dialect that is free of loan words, its not just the Syro-Lebanese dialect. I am also not sure that it is used all over, I have mainly heard it from people in the North of Lebanon. Elie is of course our linguistic Guru, he would know best.

    Posted by Nadim Shehadi | January 2, 2010, 5:13 am
  8. I am aware of the Latin strena, etc. It strikes me that the philological efforts to find a more “native” etymology is, shall we say imaginative but over done. If one goes by the use of the expression in the North (the b can thus be explained…), it seems that at least in terms of usage and its history, that something like the French is more likely.

    Posted by miltonius | January 2, 2010, 7:04 pm
  9. Is this more of a Christian expression, or maybe a regional one? Because most of my friends have never heard of it before? Maybe that’s because it’s a little old fashioned?

    Posted by sean | January 4, 2010, 6:37 am
  10. I doubt that the word is loaned from (modern) French. For the simple reason that French, at least in its modern form does not have e*s*trennes, but etrennes. I don’t assume the loaners understood that there is an etymological *s* in the word, yet not pronounced. I would GUESS that etrennes would have been loaned to Lebanese as trene or with diphthong trayne. If the word is loaned it must be from a form where the *s* is pronounced.

    Posted by Elie wardini | August 5, 2010, 4:18 am
  11. My lebanese family says something like “ZUB-A-HI-TEE” on New Years day, and I have never figured out what it means or how to really spell it. It sounds like the same tradition you describe here. Does anyone know what this word means from my phonetic spelling?


    Posted by Angela | January 4, 2014, 2:47 pm
  12. This is very interesting to learn of the different New Year’s greeting phrases.
    When I was a young child and visited my Lebanese Grandparents (we called them Sithoo and Jidoo, which I am told means grandmother and grandfather), we had the same New Year’s tradition, but a different phrase. We said something that sounded like “fowdeethee”.
    I don’t know what the phrase means, but it was the same tradition. Whoever said it first won a little money from the other person. My brothers and I still carry on the tradition.
    If you have heard the phrase “fowdeethee” please let me know. Maybe it was local to their home region in Lebanon (Tyre).

    Posted by Steve Keville (a.k.a. Ibn Yusef) | January 4, 2017, 9:53 am

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