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In modern English usage, the word Copt refers to Christian natives of Egypt, in particular members of the Coptic Orthodox Church. Arabic historians, such as al-Maqrizi, also use the Arabic equivalent of the word to refer to pre-Islamic native Egyptians regardless of religion. Some modern Egyptian nationalists use Copt in a similarly generic sense to signify any native of Egypt. It should also be noted that Egyptian Christians seldom use the word Copt to refer to themselves, but use Christian instead.
The English word Copt is from New Latin Coptus, which is derived from Arabic qubṭ قبط (pl. أقباط aqbāṭ), an Arabisation of the Coptic word kubti (Bohairic) and/or kuptaion (Sahidic). The Coptic itself is derived from the Greek word Αἴγύπτιος aiguptios "Egyptian", from Αἴγύπτος "aiguptos" "Egypt".
The Greek term for "Egypt" has a long history. It goes back to the Mycenaean language (an early form of Greek) where the word a3-ku-pi-ti-jo (lit. "Egyptian"; used here as a man's name) was written in Linear B. This Mycenaean form is from Egyptian ḥwt-k3-ptḥ ("Hut-ka-Ptah"), literally "Estate (or 'House') of Ptah" (cf. Akkadian āluḫi-ku-up-ta-aḫ), the name of the temple complex of the god Ptah at Memphis. As the chief temple precinct of the capital of Egypt, the name was applied to the entire city of Memphis and ultimately to the country as a whole. (A similar situation is observed in the name Memphis [Greek Μέμφις], which comes from the Egyptian name of the pyramid complex of king Pepi II, mn nfr ppy (lit. "Estabished in Perfection (or 'Beauty') is Pepy") at Saqqara but which was applied to the nearby capital city.) Interestingly, this usage survived in Sahidic as Gupton and Kupton, meaning "Memphis".
The older theory that the Arabic word qubṭ "Copt" was an Arabisation of the Greek name of the town of Κόπτος Coptos (modern قفط Qifṭ; Coptic Kebt and Keft) is generally no longer accepted.
References to Copts in the Coptic language are both Greek and Coptic in origin. The words kuptaion (Sahidic) and kubti (Bohairic) are known, but are used in the surviving texts to refer to the language, rather than the people; these both derive from Greek Αἴγύπτιος aiguptios "Egyptian". The "native" Coptic term referring to Copts was rem en kēme (Sahidic), lem en kēmi (Fayyumic), rem en khēmi" (Bohairic), etc., literally "people of Egypt"; cf. Egyptian rmṯ n kmt, Demotic rmt n kmỉ.
In modern usage, the word "Copt" has become synonymous with the Christian minority of Egypt as some Egyptian Christians claim exclusive, direct ancestry from the Egyptians of Pharaonic times. This, however is a controversial subject lacking evidence confirming its validty, the exclusion of non-Christian Egyptians from such ancestry.
- From the Greek word Αἴγύπτος "aiguptos", the name for Egypt in many European languages was derived.
- The word qabāṭī قباطي, a kind of textile import from Egypt and which was used to cover the Kaaba since before Islam, is derived from Arabic قبط qubṭ.
- The English word gypsy is derived from the Middle English egypcien meaning "Egyptian". Likewise, the Spanish word gitano, also meaning gypsy, derives from a common Latin source. This is due to the mistaken belief that gypsies were of Egyptian origin. Gypsy and the (probably) related term, gyp ("to swindle or cheat") are generally viewed as being pejorative; see the article Roma (people).
- In modern Egyptian Arabic, the word koftes (pl. kafatsa), used colloquially to refer to Christians in pejorative manner, is perhaps an Egyptianised form of the Latin Coptus, under phonetic and linguistic factors different from those which existed when qubṭ was derived from Greek aiguptios. This, however, seems unlikely.
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