24 March 2023

The Emptiness of Etymology

It is de rigueur to begin an essay about a Buddhist technical term with an etymology: a discourse on the "true" or "original" (etymos) meaning of the word by referring to historical usage. I have often done this myself because I learned to write academic essays by reading hundreds of them and it's a very common practice. Constructing etymologies is fascinating and fun, it's just that this scholastic approach is alien to most language users. One could be completely ignorant of historical linguistics and still be fluent in a language. As most children are, for example.

It makes little sense to offer an etymology up front as part of defining a term since no language-user ever defined words that way. Nor does etymology necessarily tell us anything at all about how words are used at any given time (even "originally"). Also note that the first recorded use is necessarily a reference to written language which is likely a poor reflection of how a language was spoken. Moreover, in Buddhism Studies our texts are religious texts composed by religieux for religieux and they are full of words used as religious jargon. Buddhist jargon was often created in defiance of etymology: e.g. vedanā or dhāraṇī.

This begs the question: How do we define words? And, in the light of the answer to this, how should we present the meaning of words when writing about them?

As Wittgenstein noted:

“For a large class of cases of the employment of the word ‘meaning’—though not for all—this word can be explained in this way: the meaning of a word is its use in the language” (Philosophical Investigations 43).

This is sometimes boiled down to the rule of thumb: meaning is use. The meaning a word conveys doesn't come from the word itself, it comes from how we use the word in language (see also the Humpty Dumpty theory of language). The general term for this approach to speech is pragmatics. Apart from Wittgenstein, this approach is also particularly associated with two philosophers of language: John L. Austin (1911-1960) and (his student and collaborator) John Searle (1932 -).* In a pragmatic framework we often don't ask what a word means, we ask what an utterance (or locution) was intended to do (illocution) and what it actually did (perlocution). The focus is less on words, and more on sentences.

* NB. Searle (now a nonagenarian) was a fine philosopher and hugely influential in thinking about language, mind, society, artificial intelligence, and much more. He is one of the few philosophers I've enjoyed reading and has been a big influence on me. However, in 2017 a series of allegations of sexual harassment and sexual assault emerged. Searle's emeritus professor status was revoked by UC Berkeley although, far as I can tell, he has not been charged with or convicted of a crime. Still, his legacy is severely tarnished by these allegations.

Philologers are concerned primarily with words in written language. For all that writing has a way of formalising language, in fact as we start to deal directly with ancient manuscripts we soon discover that no two of them are identical. And this leaves us with the awkward task of reconciling multiple competing versions of the text. The philologist has to assess which of the plurality of possible readings is the most plausible one. But the assessment relies heavily on the knowledge and experience of the editor and thus often involves subjectivity.

As my readers will know from my work on the Heart Sutra, editors sometimes make mistakes or deliberately mislead us about texts. Edward Conze is an obvious example of what can go wrong: his editions are full of mistakes (in Sanskrit grammar and syntax) and misreadings that made his idiosyncratic theory of Prajñāpāramitā more plausible. I still can't decide if he knew what he was doing or not. I suspect he did.

Authors may also allow different versions of their works to circulate, leaving philologists to argue over which is better. There are two editions of Kant's Critique of Pure Reason and they are substantially different. Clearly the author preferred the second reading but scholars sometimes think he said it better the first time around. We are not bound to take author's view of what the text says and remakes are notoriously inferior. Moreover, scribes make mistakes and these can be incorporated into the text, as has happened to the Tibetan Heart Sutra text.

In any case, even when we have a settled and reliable text, we may still encounter unfamiliar words quite often. And these present a problem, especially with an oral text, no reference books, and the spoken language has drifted for a millennia, which was the situation faced by Ṛgveda scholars in the ancient world.

Unfamiliar Words in the Ancient World

Many people will know that modern linguistics was kickstarted when European intellectuals encountered the Aṣṭādyāyī, a complete descriptive grammar of Vedic produced by Pāṇini ca 400 BCE. Pāṇini was an advocate of the analytical (vyākaraṇa) approach to what words mean, which involves analysis of the construction of words and identifying verbal roots as the principal bearer of meaning.

Alongside this was a less well known tradition of linguistic analysis known as nirvācaṇa or "semantic analysis". This approach is associated with the figure of Yāska and is contained in his work the Nirukta, which is a commentary on a list of rare and unusual words in a text called the Nighaṇṭu. My account of the Nirukta is largely based on Eivind Kahrs (1998) and some articles by Paolo Visigalli (2017) and Johannes Bronkhorst (1981, 2001).

For Yāska, as for Pāṇini, the name of a things derive from its activities. Kahrs points out that proposition is conceptually more fundamental that deriving nouns from verbs. This is why explaining a noun by referencing a verb is seen as meaningful. Yāska asks "Why is dawn (uṣā) so called?" And answers: uṣā ucchati "Dawn dawns"; That is, "dawn is called 'dawn' (uṣā) because she carries out the action of dawning (ucchati)." Here the verb ucchati explains the noun uṣā by linking it to an action. (See also my essay on what explanation is and what makes for a good explanation)

The Nirukta proposes three levels of analysis. Durga's commentary on the Nirukta refers to these as the cases of pratyakṣavṛtti "evident formation", parokṣavṛtti "obscured formation", and atiparokṣavṛtti "opaque formation" (c.f. Kahrs 1998: 35-39; Visigalli 2017: 1148).

Evident Formations

Firstly, there are obvious examples where grammatical analysis (vyākaraṇa) gives us all the information we need. For example, the common noun dharma is regularly derived from the root √dhṛ "hold" by adding the primary suffix -ma to the root in its guṇa grade (i.e. dhar). If you know the morphology and you can identify the root, then you can parse the unfamiliar word.

Another good example for Buddhists might be the word buddhi. This is not one of our technical terms so might not be familiar. But it looks a lot like buddha, the past participle of √budh "aware, awake" with the suffix -ta and a series of entirely regular sound changes. Similarly, I can parse buddhi as √budh with the action noun suffix -ti and guess that the resulting word means something like "awareness, waking". Actual usage provides the context that allows us to refine this guess to something appropriate to the specific occurrence.

Obscured Formations

Secondly, some words are tricky because they are irregular formations. Consider the Pāli word vedagū (see also Some Notes on -in Vedagū). The veda part is easy and tractable with a standard vyākaraṇa approach. Veda is from the causative stem of the root √vid "to know".

On the other hand, is not a word in Pāḷi and it's not a word in Sanskrit. Nor is it obviously derived from a known word (verb or otherwise) in the Indo-European language family. On the other hand it does not appear to be a loan word either. And yet we have not only vedagū but a bunch of other words ending in -gū like lokantagū (an epithet of the Buddha). When we look at how the word is used it becomes apparent that - must be related to words meaning "go" and thus can be explained as some kind of alteration of √gam or √ which is closely related. Moreover we can see that a few other words that ended in -ā got changed to -ū, like kataññū or viññū. With some effort, then, we can see that vedagū means much the same thing as *vedagā or vedagata, i.e. "in a state of knowing", "knowledgeable". Still, the form -cannot be arrived at by an allowed phonetic changes applied to a known form or root. Therefore - cannot be explained using vyākaraṇa. I have argued that is an example of an analogical change in Pāli (though the JPTS was underwhelmed by my argument).

Opaque Formations

Thirdly, and most importantly for Yāska, there are very obscure examples which defy logical grammatical analysis entirely. It seems that there were a large number of unique words (hapax legomena) in the Ṛgveda whose meaning was already obscure by the time Yāksa wrote his treatise. Yāska was focussed on this class of words that didn't yield to standard linguistic analysis of the Pāṇinian vyākaraṇa tradition. Presumably the hundreds of loanwords from Dravidian and Muṇḍa languages in Ṛgveda (c.f. Witzel 1999) complicated this process since they are never traceable to a Vedic verbal root.

Take the example of śraddhā "faith". Vyākaraṇā suggests a root √śrad but this is unknown in Sanskrit. We can see from context that the word is understood as referring to the heart but the standard word for this is hṛd. The only other related word is śrāddha "death rite". There are no Sanskrit verbal forms related to śrad or hṛd. So we can't easily define śraddhā in terms of an action. What tends to happen however, is that scholars note that dhā appears to relate to the root √dha "to place" and the definition often includes a note about faith being "placing the heart".

Thus, Yāska was not idly speculating about the philosophy of language, his practical task was to try to elucidate the meaning of unfamiliar words in the archaic and partially obscure language of the Ṛgveda. Something like ten centuries separate the composition of the verses of the Ṛgveda and Yāska. Spoken language in daily use changes a lot in that time, and in this case enough so that intelligibility began to break down. And full intelligibility has never been restored since even modern scholars are still puzzled by some of the unique words in the Ṛigveda.

Yāska's approach to dealing with these intractable problems was a form of phonetic analysis that attributed meaning to sounds.

The Sound Alike Principle, or Sound Symbolism

There is a curious fact about language that is not accepted by mainstream linguists but which was the subject of a PhD (2001) and a popular book (1999) by Margaret Magnus. If you take all the simple* words that begin with the same sound and cluster them by (broad) meaning, one will find different patterns for different sounds.

* here I use "simple" for Magnus's term monomorphemic: words that do not rely on prefixes or suffixes for their meaning. So for example "gnosis" is monomorphemic but "cognition" is not, since it involves the Latin suffix com-.

Describing the range of semantic fields covered by English words beginning with the /b/ sound, Magnus (1999: 52) says in her book:

The essence of /b/ concerns two things of which one is the lesser. /b/ identifies with this lesser element, the baddie, the back side. /b/ is not found in the 'ifs' or 'ands'. /b/ is found in the 'buts', those things which are secondary and adjoined, 'beside the point', 'by the way'.
/b/ is also high pressure within and low pressure without, like a bubble on the surface of the sea waiting to burst. English perceives this in various ways: as a birth, a death, a barrier, a transgression. Whatever the interpretation, /b/ conveys an explosive, large, and uproarious experience to the world. It blocks up openings or processes until the pressure is to great, and then it blows up. BAM! It disperses in all directions and cares not a whit where it lands.

Another, independent, manifestation of this phenomenon can be found in the little book Euphonics by John Michell (1998: 2)

An image evoked by the B sound is of balloons blown up near to bursting. They are broad, bluff, burly, obese, bulging, bulbous, burgeoning, billowing, blooming, blubbery blimps. These bouncing orbs attract adjectives of bounty: blessed, benevolent, benign, abundant, bland, buttery, and beautiful

So in the last resort, when all other methods have failed, one may try to guess using the soundalike principle. An unusual English word beginning with /b/ may well fall within the semantic fields outlined in this way. It's not guaranteed or reliable. This is a last resort and must still be combined with understanding the context.

As with etymology, the Nirukta soundalike principle escaped the grammarian's milieu and found a popular expression. My favourite example of this in Buddhaghosa's explanation of bhagavant:

bhagī bhajī bhāgī vibhattavā iti
Akāsi bhaggan ti garu bhāgyavā
Bahūhi ñayehi subhāvitattano
Bhagavantago so bhagavā ti vuccati
(Vism VII.56)
The weighty one (garu) has blessings (bhagī), is a frequenter (bhajī), a partaker (bhāgī) a possessor of what has been analysed (vibhattavā). He has caused abolishing (bhagga), he is fortunate (bhāgyavā). He has fully developed himself (subhāvitattano) in many ways. He has gone to the end of becoming (Bhagavantago) thus he is called “Blessed” (bhagavā)

At face value, the Pāḷi is pure nonsense, but note how this fits with the approach by Magnus and Michell. This doesn't always work. In the absence of an obvious verbal root for rūpa for example, some Buddhists related it to ruppati "to harm" in Pāli (e.g. the Khajjanīya Sutta which has been seen as an important source for understanding the skandhas). In answer to Yāska's question standard question: rūpaṃ kasmāt "Why is [it called] rūpa?", the Khajjanīya-kāra says that because rūpa does the action of ruppati "harming". The inferred relation is from √rup "harm" to the noun rūpa. But this is not accurate because there is no grammatical relation between rūpa and √rup. A version of this pericope in Aṣṭasāhasrikā uses the denominative verb rūpayati instead and this makes much more sense, especially in the light of my aphorism: "rūpa is to the eye as sound is to the ear." While a kind of sense can be made of rūpaṃ ruppati (since Buddhists consider sensory experience to be harmful), the sense of rūpaṃ rūpayati "an appearance appears" is too obvious to be wrong. This kind of statement is extremely common in Pāḷi.

Finally we should note that Plato also accepted a soundalike principle and essays it unsystematically in the Cratylus Dialogue.

"Now the letter rho, as I was saying, appeared to the imposer of names an excellent instrument for the expression of motion; and he frequently uses the letter for this purpose: for example, in the actual words rein and roe he represents motion by rho; also in the words tromos (trembling), trachus (rugged); and again, in words such as krouein (strike), thrauein (crush), ereikein (bruise), thruptein (break), kermatixein (crumble), rumbein (whirl): of all these sorts of movements he generally finds an expression in the letter R, because, as I imagine, he had observed that the tongue was most agitated and least at rest in the pronunciation of this letter, which he therefore used in order to express motion".

An article by Johannes Bronkhorst (2001) outlines and compares the two approaches found in the Nirukta and the Cratylus.

I am not saying that this sound alike principle was or is a first line of resort in explaining unfamiliar words, I'm saying that in the face of the failure of more rational methods, we may resort to this rather dubious method. This is definitely the last resort and all it does is potentially enrich our guesses, but there is some limited evidence that it can enrich guesses.

Unknown Words in the Present

When we encounter an unfamiliar word in a text, human beings have a limited set of possible actions to try to figure out what it means. Like Yāska, I see three levels these actions as occupying three levels. The first reaction for most of us is to ask the nearest (familiar) person if they know and then broaden the circle out. People seek information from other people before we seek it in other ways. There is also trial and error: a kind of Bayesian approach in which we infer the meaning from the context and then look to see how this works in other contexts and then adjust as required. Finally, we can guess based on clues like similarity to other words and hope for the best.

These intuitive responses have been refined by European* philologers and what follows is an attempt to generalise about how we approach the unfamiliar word in the present.

* The people we are talking about are either grew up in Europe or in one of the colonies of Europe.

As scholars encountering an unfamiliar word in a text we also have three levels of response though they have been refined somewhat: consult an expert, explore the context, and etymology.

Consult an Expert

Encountering an unfamiliar or unknown word is relatively common. I still come across new English words from time to time. Of course we live in an age in which there are comprehensive modern dictionaries and most of them are now online. It is usually a matter of a few seconds of searching to get a definition. These days as major references works are almost all online now, we can get pretty reliable answers to most questions if we are selective about which sources we use.

Recently, I've taken to watching American Football for entertainment and this has involved learning the jargon that the commentators and players use. Some terms that are used frequently like "fourth down and ten" or "out of bounds" or "snap" can easily be decoded from watching the action and equating words with what I'm seeing. However, it's not entirely obvious what terms like "go route" or "ineligible man downfield" mean in this way. In order to understand these terms I had to look them up.

When I google "ineligible man downfield", I'm asking an expert, Google's role is to put me in touch with the most relevant experts. When I look something up in a dictionary or grammar text I am consulting an expert. Experts are not simply knowledgeable about what words mean but (in the words of the late Roy Norman), they can say why words mean what they do, largely from looking at how the have been used in the past. The lexicographer Margaret Cone used to literally look at every single occurrence of a word in Pāḷi before writing her Dictionary of Pali entries. It is this that makes her an expert and her definitions authoritative.

One of the results of printing was to democratise knowledge, though it was some time before literacy became a general condition. Once a person could write down their knowledge, reproduce it relatively cheaply, and distribute it far and wide, knowledge began to escape from the milieu of experts. It also gave birth to meta-experts like librarians: we don't know everything; our expertise is in knowing how and where to find out anything.

This means that even though we seldom have direct access to experts, we have access to their knowledge in a systematic, albeit generalised, form in their written works.

Humans are social animals. We first look to each other for support; this includes knowledge support. But what to do when the experts fail, as they do from time to time.


In one of my first publications (Attwood 2010) I noticed that a translation from Pāḷi included the word "confess" but I could not find a word in the Pāḷi that meant "confess". The passage in question was cited from T. Rhys Davids' translation of the Dīghanikāya in which Ajātasattu goes to visit the Buddha and tells him about killing his father, Bimbasāra, in order to take his throne.

Verily O King it was sin that overcame you while acting thus. But in as much as you look upon it as sin, and confess it according to what is right we accept your confession as to that. For that, O King, is the custom of the Noble Ones, that whosoever looks upon his faults as a fault and rightly confesses it, shall attain to self-restraint in the future. (94-95)

I had many questions after reading this. I also discovered that in some cases of this passage in other contexts the phrase "we forgive you" occured in the English translation. Let's look at the Pāḷi and my (recent) translation.

Taggha tvaṃ, mahārāja, accayo accagamā yathābālaṃ yathāmūḷhaṃ yathā akusalaṃ, yaṃ tvaṃ pitaraṃ dhammikaṃ dhammarājānaṃ jīvitā voropesi. Yato ca kho tvaṃ, mahārāja, accayaṃ accayato disvā yathādhammaṃ paṭikarosi, taṃ te mayaṃ paṭiggaṇhāma. Vuddhihesā, mahārāja, ariyassa vinaye, yo accayaṃ accayato disvā yathādhammaṃ paṭikaroti, āyatiṃ saṃvaraṃ āpajjatī ti.
Certainly, Mahārāja, you transgressed (accaya) by going too far (accagamā) when—like a fool, like an idiot, like an incompetent—you deprived your legitimate father, the rightful king, of his life. Since, however, Mahārāja having seen the transgression as transgression, you have returned to righteousness, we accept that from you. It is an ancient custom in this noble discipline that one who sees his transgression as transgression returns to righteousness, and in future will exhibit restraint.

While we can see how a nineteenth century translator might have rendered accaya as "sin" there is no word that means "confess" nor less "forgive". And where we might expect to find that word, we have instead the verb paṭikaroti.

The entire entry from PED reads:

Paṭikaroti [paṭi+karoti) 1. to redress, repair, make amends for a sin, expiate (āpattiŋ) Vin i.98, 164; ii.259; iv.19; S ii.128=205; A v.324; DhA i.54. — 2. to act against, provide for, beware, be cautious J iv.166. — 3. to imitate J ii.406. — ger. paṭikacca (q. v.). — pp. paṭikata (q. v.).

And yet this is not how the verb is being used in the passage in question. Notably here etymology is completely useless because the verb karoti is so vague. It can mean "make" or "do" and the paṭi- prefix adds the sense of "against, back to, return". So paṭikaroti might have originally meant something like "counteract", but has clearly been used in a variety of senses.

To get the correct sense of the term for the context we have to look at the phrase and how it is used, and this is what I did in Attwood (2010). My conclusion was that the word had to be seen as part of the expression: yathādhammaṃ paṭikaroti. I argued that this must mean something like "return to righteousness" in order to make sense in context.

The passage does not use a word that means "confess", however Ajatasattu does confess in the sense that he tells the Buddha "I killed my father". And the Buddha accepts the confession (taṃ... paṭiggaṇhāma "we accept that [confession]" not "we forgive your [sin]"). And he acknowledges the resolution to return to lawfulness, but he does not "forgive" Ajātasattu and the sutta brings this out because after king leaves, the Buddha says to his monks: "The king is wounded, monks, the king is done for" (khatāyaṃ, bhikkhave, rājā. Upahatāyaṃ, bhikkhave, rājā. DN I 85) . The commentary records the story that, on death, Ajātasattu went straight to a hell realm for his transgression to be purged through extreme suffering (a hangover of the non-Buddhist idea that suffering purifies the soul). Later versions of this story see the king being purified of his unforgivable karma merely by confessing to the Buddha. This reaction is part of an ongoing process of deification of the Buddha: Buddhists could not conceive of his presence having no effect on Ajātasttu so they changed the rules of karma to allow the Buddha to save sinners.

In this case consulting the experts failed and I had to become the expert. I did this by looking at the local and broader context of how the word was used; by reading every single occurance of this term in the Pāli suttas and thinking about what it might mean in each context. Still there are times when this method fails also.

And this brings us to the last resort: etymology.


The word etymology is made up of Greek etymos "true, real, actual" combined with logos "study" and thus originally meant "the study of true [meaning]." This is a wonderfully optimistic idea. With the reconstruction of Proto-Indo-European more or less complete (notwithstanding arguments over details) and widely accepted to be accurate, we can usually trace a word in English or Sanskrit back a few thousands years to PIE; where the word is not a loan from some other language family.

Etymology is a useful tool in comparative historical linguistics because it helps identify cognate words, but as much as anything we are concerned at one level with the changes in phonetics over time on one hand and with changes in grammar (the structure of language) on the other. I think lay people often place too much emphasis on the conservation of words over time. For example, kin terms like father (pitṛ, πατέρας) or numbers like two (dvi, δύο) are strongly conserved. But what's interesting historically is that despite conservation we see sound changes. Indo-European initial /p/ becomes /f/ in the Germanic languages (including English). This is known in Europe as Grimm's Law.

The limitations of etymology for defining words are beautifully brought out by the example of nice. Our English word derives from the Latin nescius "ignorant, unaware,". It was used in the thirteenth century to mean "foolish, ignorant, frivolous, senseless." By the late fourteenth century, it was being used in the sense of "fussy, fastidious" and "dainty, delicate". By the sixteenth century, the meaning had changed to "precise, careful" (a "nice distinction"). In the eighteenth century, it came to mean "agreeable, delightful"; in the nineteenth century "kind, thoughtful"; and, finally, in the twenty-first century it now means "twee, bland, uninteresting".

At more or less any time in history, the etymology of the word nice tells us almost nothing about how it is used by English speakers. And keep in mind that we are basing this on the occurrence of the word in written texts. In fact we have little idea of how people spoke at any given time prior to audio recordings.

Examples of poor use of etymology abound in Buddhist studies. For example, Edward Conze insisted that avalokita means "looked down" and vyavalokayati "to look down". And he was flatly wrong in both cases. Both words derive from √lok "to look" and mean "examine, observe". That is to say they both suggest forms of looking closely at something: more like "getting down and looking" rather than "looking down". The prefix ava- can simply mean "downwards" but Sanskrit prefixes have a range of senses and influence on the final meaning. Prefixes don't always result in logical changes to words. For example, avagacchati can literally mean "go down" as in "descend", but it's also used to mean "arrive, visit, approach"; moreover it has a cognitive sense of "understanding, knowing".

Anastomus oscitans

Another example from my own research (Attwood 2013) is the case of sithilahanu. This word is used only once in Pāḷi and Chinese translations of the text offer no insights. The context tells us it is a kind of bird, since the word occurs in a list of birds whose feathers are used to fletch arrows. But the etymology of the name is unhelpful: sithila "loose, lax, bending, yielding" and hanu "chin, jaw". One author guessed that it might be the open-billed stork (Anastomus oscitans), which has a gap when it's beak is closed. This doesn't really make sense: a "gap" is not "loose" and the bill is not particularly bent or yielding, it has a gap which is helpful for cracking the shells of water snails without crushing them. Moreover the beak of a bird is usually tuṇḍa.

Or consider vedanā (Attwood 2018) which we often see translated as "feeling" or "sensation", but which Buddhists use to mean "the positive, negative, and neutral hedonic quality of experience" (sukha-dukkha-asukhamadukkha). We actually have an English word that is used in exactly this sense by neuroscientists, i.e. valence (a word that is used in a variety of scientific jargons). But vedanā comes from the root √vid "to know": the closely related term vedana means "announcing, proclaiming" which suggests that it is from the causative stem of the root, i.e. ved- "to cause knowing, to make known, to inform". Again, the etymology of the word has no obvious connection to how it is used in Buddhist texts.

It turns out that when we encounter an unfamiliar word, the etymology is the least useful approach to understanding what it means. Indeed, etymology is often wrong about usage at any given time or simply irrelevant to that usage.


Citing an etymology in lectures and essays probably began as a way for philologists to show that they were bona fide members of the profession who knew their stuff: a kind of academic shibboleth. I doubt they ever imagined that the practice of talking about etymology would ever escape their ivory tower. It seems that, other scholars soon realised that they could simply consult an etymology dictionary and they would sound erudite in the matter of language. I've definitely done this.

Unlike Plato who seemed to be quite playful with the soundalike principle, Yāska was serious and his business, interpreting the Ṛgveda was serious. Even so, Yāska knows that a guess based on the sound-alike principle was a last resort when dealing with an unfamiliar word. Of course, phonosemantics has never taken off in mainstream linguistics because it's too opposed to the paradigms of academic linguistics which take as axiomatic the idea that verbal sounds are not symbolic (or gestural) in any way. The modern view, following Saussure, is that spoken sounds are entirely arbitrary. However, I still think Magnus had a point and good data. And I wonder if the discovery of the sophisticated gestural language of chimpanzees, which is largely intelligible to humans, might make someone think (with Magnus) that verbalisations are (or at least involve) gestures.

For scholars of language or texts encountering an unfamiliar word, the last resort is etymology. One uses etymology to guess the contemporary (synchronic) meaning of unfamiliar words based on the historical (diachronic) meaning. These days we have the marvel of the reconstructed language of all our Indo-European forebears, i.e. Proto-Indo-European. It is now a trivial matter to look up what Indo-European root a given word can be traced to. I've spent many happy hours doing just this (for around 500 terms in my book Nāmapada).

The first resort of explaining a word to someone ought to be offering them a sentence in which it is used in a typical manner. As is done in American spelling bees. If the word has multiple senses then offer a representative sample of sentences in which the word is used. This is what the best dictionaries do, with Franklin Edgerton's Dictionary of Buddhist Hybrid Sanskrit being a shining example.

An excellent example of how to approach the meaning of a word can be found in the article on saññā by Krishna Del Toso (2015). Rather than pfaff about with etymologies, Del Toso goes straight to looking at how the word is used in sentences in Pāḷi. He begins with a catalogue of existing translations and why they are unsatisfactory, offers provisional translations from a locus classicus, but then examines how it fits in other contexts leading to refinements in his definitions. In this view saññā, can be usefully translated as "recognition", but involves but "recognizing" and "naming" (693). Del Toso suggests that saññā, "Indicates an ordering activity that is carried out by grasping the distinctive marks of things of which one has a sensation. (709)". This is similar to the conclusion I came to when studying the khandhas via summaries by Vetter and Hamilton (see Modern Interpretations of the Khandhas: Saññā).

It's all too easy to fall for the hype of etymology, but it really isn't much help day to day unless the problems we are thinking about involve historical phonetic changes. The one thing the etymology can never tell us is the true meaning of a word, independent of use. Because in the final analysis, Wittgenstein was onto something: meaning is to be found in how words are used; and use is specific to a language using community which exists in a place and a time.



Bronkhorst, J. (1981). "Nirukta and Aṣṭādhyāyī: Their Shared Presuppositions." Indo-Iranian Journal, 23(1) :1-14

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