Fact 102 – Some interesting words in our Mother Tongue

Am listing a few interesting words here.

Vaidya: This word means ‘knowing, learned etc.”. In usage now it has come to mean ‘physician’. Interestingly, this word has had a parallel evolution in English. The word ‘doctor’ in English also means, ‘learned, teacher etc.’, as you can see used in the word ‘Doctor of Philosophy’ (PhD). Now this also has come to mean physician!

Vidvān: This is an interesting word. This is the nominative singular of Vidvāṃs, and means a learned chap. The English word ‘fellow’ also means a learned chap, but many a time it is also used to casually refer to a man or a boy. ‘That fellow’, ‘he is a nice sort of fellow’ etc. In Malayalam, the word Vidvān, borrowed from Sanskrit, means a learned chap. But, like in English, it has also come to mean a casual reference to a man or boy! An interesting case of parallel evolution? In fact, in Malayalam this casual usage of the word Vidvān, for a boy or a man, started at least in the 18th century.

Ujjayinī: (ud + jayinī) The city, Ujjain. This word means ‘having great victory, victorious’. There are other cities in the world that have ‘victory’ as a theme. Cairo (Al Qahira ‘vanquisher, destroyer’); Nikopolis ‘city of victory’; Putra Jaya (in Malaysia) means ‘victory of son’ etc.

Indrasenā, Devasenā etc.: Woman’s names. Meaning Indra’s (Devas’) army. The Apsaras are used by the gods to seduce their foes and thus make easy for them to defeat them. They thus act like an army for the gods. So, they are known as Indrasenā, Devasenā etc.

Dinārā: It was a gold coin used in ancient times in India. It is from the Latin word dēnārius. The dēnārius was a coin of ancient Rome. These coins were used very widely in India during the first millennium (they were introduced into India by the Scythians). There are many epigraphical records (even in South India – refer Perumal epigraphy in Kerala) where the dinārā is mentioned. A word derived from dēnārius, dinar, is now the currency of several countries – Algeria, Kuwait, Jordan, Serbia Iraq and many more.

Sampuṭa: This word means ‘a bowl or a dish’ or ‘a box to keep jewels’. This word is used in the phrase sampuṭe √likh ‘write into the jewel box’, which means credit something (in the accusative) to a person’s (in the genitive) account.

Nārāyaṇa: The etymology of this word given in the Mānava Dharma Śāstra (the Code of Manu) is this: Nārāyaṇa << Nārās (= Nāra)  ‘water’ + ayana ‘motion’. Having Nārās as his ayana. He who had his first place of motion or quickening in the primeval waters. Nārās is so called because it came from nara ‘the primeval man’. So, Nārāyaṇa is the son of the primeval man. [Nārāyaṇa linguistically can be seen as a patronymic of nara (from nr̥)

Anaḍvah: This is a masculine noun meaning ‘bullock’. It is derived from anas ‘cart, burden’ + vah ‘drawing, carrying’. Interestingly the word anas meaning ‘burden’ is cognate with the English word ‘onus’ meaning burden.

Aryaman: This is the name of a deity found in the Vedas. The word is an adjective meaning a close friend, a bosom friend, a bridegroom’s friend (he is the one who asks for a girl in marriage for his friend). So, it is equivalent to the English word ‘best man’. Of course, the words ‘man’ at the end is a coincidence!

Akṣara: This word means exactly that – ‘word’ (or letter). The word is an adjective meaning ‘imperishable’. Since by ancient ideas words are imperishable, they are called this.

Sūṣā́ ca me sudínaṃ ca me: This phrase occurs in the Taittirīya Saṃhita (The Black Yajur Veda), 7.3.2. These are two of the wishes asked for by the chanter of this anuvāka of the Veda. The chanter is wishing for a ‘good morning’ and a ‘good day’. So, it is quite okay for us to greet each other with ‘good morning’ and ‘good day’. There is a recent move to frown on these greetings as they are thought to be un-Indian. But we have the Vedic sanction for it!

Ādi: This word means ‘beginning’ or ‘first’. This word is used at the end of adjective compounds to indicate what we use ‘etc.’ ‘and so on’ etc. for in English. So, for say, ‘boys Rama and others’ we would say, rāmādayo bālāḥ. ‘The boys starting with Rama’ (or a list of boys with Rama at the head’.

Uttara: This word is the comparative of ud ‘up, high’. So, this means higher, upper etc. The word in this sense has the opposite adhara. Since for the early Indians who worked with Sanskrit, the higher side was the north (since the Himalayas were there), forms of uttara also came to mean ‘northern’ or ‘north’. [Interestingly in Tamil the word for ‘west’ is merku and the word for east is kizhakku. Merku (= from mel tikku higher direction) actually means up or high. For the people living in Tamil Nadu the mountains (The Western Ghats) were to the west. Keezh, in a similar manner, actually means ‘low’. So Kizhakku is from keezh tikku]. Uttara also means ‘left’, since it is the left side when facing east (the side to which prayers are offered to in the morning). Interestingly, in the case of south, the the word derivation went the other way and south (dakṣiṇa)  (got the name for ‘to the right’! Uttara also means ‘latter, following’ (as opposed to pūrva)

Svasti: (√su + asti) Feminine noun meaning welfare well-being etc. It is used as a blessing (then it is used as a non-declinable neuter): Svastyastu te ‘bless you’. In the Vedas the word is always rendered as three syllables suasti.

Abda: Literally meaning ‘water-giving’. From there it came to mean rainy season and from that to ‘year’. The word varṣa meaning ‘rain’ or ‘rainy season’ also means ‘year’. In fact, the names of seasons are used to mean year very frequently. For example, śatáṃ jīva śarádaḥ ‘live a hundred autumns’ means live a hundred years. In English too, seasons are used to mean year. So many summers have passed, so many winters have passed etc.

Asura: (√as + u + ra or √as + ura) This means ‘spiritual’ or ‘god’ in the Veda. In the Vedas, asuras were not considered bad. In fact, Varuṇa is considered to be a great Asura. It was only later that the word Asura got its bad connotation. Then the word sura ‘god’ was derived by a reverse process, making it appear as if the word asura was a+sura ‘not god’. Interestingly the Persians took the Indian concepts of the gods when the split between the devas and the asuras were just beginning to manifest. But they looked at things differently. For them the devas (daevas) were the demons and the asuras (ahuras) were the gods. Thus, they got their great god Ahura Mazda (who is actually Varuṇa).

Ahata: ‘new, unused’ of clothes. The word is a-hata (from √han) ‘not beaten’. Clothes are washed and cleaned by beating them on a stone. Compare with the concept of stoned or beaten jeans, new jeans artificially made to look used.

Nyagrodha: Masculine word meaning ‘banyan tree’. The derivation is interesting. Nyag + rodha ß nyañc ‘downwards’ + rodha ‘growing’ (from √rudh ‘grow’). So, the meaning of the word is ‘downwards-growing’.  This is in reference to the aerial prop roots (adventitious) roots that these trees have.

Sūpa: ‘Soup’. Interestingly even though they sound very close, there seems to be no etymological connection between the two.

Usrā: feminine noun ‘dawn’. Cognate with European words like “easter”. See the appearance of the “t” between “s” and “r”. This same “t” appears in other cognate systems. svasr̥ ‘sister’; √sru ‘stream’ etc.


2 thoughts on “Fact 102 – Some interesting words in our Mother Tongue

  1. Dear Sir,

    I am going through your website in my search for learning Sanskrit and found it useful.

    The exercises given under each lesson I want to check with actual answers to know my understanding and could not locate any keys for exercises.

    Hope you will also give out answers so that it will be much more useful.


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