A few times over the course of its run, The Wire has briefly shone its light on “A-rabs”, street peddlers who sell fruits and vegetables on carts pulled by horses and a fixture in Baltimore life.
Bubbles, during one of his many short-lived forays into sobriety and legality, is one of those peddlers. “You A-rabbing now, Bubs?” Jonny asks him before inviting him on a caper.
Two weeks ago, Dukie picks up Bug from school on the back of a junk man’s horse-drawn carriage. “Duke, you A-rabbing?” Bug jokes.
Okay, so what is an A-rabber? And isn’t that kinda racist? John McIntyre of The Baltimore Sun‘s copy desk breaks it down.
The word arab in the sense of a peddler appears to derive from street arab, or, according to the unabridged Webster’s New International Dictionary, a “homeless vagabond in the streets of a city or esp. an outcast boy or girl: GAMIN.” The Oxford English Dictionary locates this sense of “a homeless little wanderer, a child of the street” in a citation from 1848. That’s the sense in which the term can be found in the Sherlock Holmes stories from the Victorian era.
This association of wanderers with Arabs likely reflects the sense of the nomadic life historically led by the peoples on the Arabian Peninsula. By extension, the person wandering the streets has been transformed from a vagrant to a vendor. The term street arab has fallen largely into disuse over the past century.
The Sun’s insistence in its house style that the Baltimore street peddlers are to be referred to as A-rabs, not Arabs, is a means of differentiating the local patois from the ethnic term. Whatever stereotypes of Arabs may be current in American culture, the Baltimore terms, A-rab and Arabber, indicate a respect for people who work very hard to make a living, and also an affectionate respect for a local tradition.
Nevertheless, since A-rab can look jarring in headline type, we are revising our stylebook to give preference to the alternative Arabber.
Interestingly, Arabbers are usually black men, and Arabbing was one of the few jobs available for blacks in many cities, though government officials and animal rights activists who didn’t want horses on city streets cracked down on the practice, making Baltimore the only city with Arabbers left. But even there, the practice is close to extinction.