The term comes from an Arabic word meaning container, sheath, or envelope. It originally referred to an ornamental holder, often made of metal and decorated with filigree, engraving, or possibly gems. Traditionally, the zarf served as functional adornment of the demitasse or finjan (small cup of Arabic or Turkish coffee): protecting the cup and keeping fingers cool.
The word entered English in the nineteenth century. By the 1970s, the definition had expanded to include less decorative items, such as the plastic holders of disposable paper cups.