Many of us in the United States have come to know the waterpipe we smoke as a “hookah”, but the name can vary depending on where in the world you may be (or even just your cultural surroundings). If you are really curious about the origins of all the different names and how terms are used throughout the globe I suggest setting some time aside to read up a bit and educate yourself. By no means am I an expert on the etymology of the words and phrases used, but I would like to share with you all a basic understanding of the word “hookah”.
What does it mean? Where did it come from? Why were you shown waterpipes by the clerk in the store when you asked to see shisha?
Lets start with what we all know: hookah.
Hookah – The common term used in the United States when referring to a waterpipe used to smoke tobacco (or shisha). For the most part you can get away with using this word throughout the US and have people understand what you are talking about.
Narjilah/Nargileh – Another name for the waterpipe commonly used in countries like Syria, Turkey, Italy, Greece, Iran, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel, and Palestine.
Qalyān – Used to refer to a waterpipe in Iran, Russia, Ukraine, and Belarus.
Shisha – Commonly used to refer to the tobacco smokes out of the hookah. However, there can be some confusion when using this word as it has a different meaning in other cultures. Often spelled “Sheesha”, this term is used to refer to the pipe itself, and NOT the tobacco smoked out of it (common in Egypt and other counties in the Arab Peninsula). This can be good to know when going into authentic smoke shops since the shop owner may confuse your inquiry about tobacco for a waterpipe instead (happened to me recently on my trip to North Carolina. I asked the shop owner where he kept the shisha and he pointed me to the waterpipes).
Mu’assel – Arabic name for the tobacco/molasses/honey/glycerin mixture we all love to smoke in our waterpipes. Also known as “shisha“.
These are just a few of the various names, but you get the point. Be mindful of where you are and who you are with when using certain terms. While using the wrong term will not get you in trouble, you may get some funny looks from people if you say you “smoke shisha in your hookah”.