'Fanciful' etymologies (was re. dating)

Luis Arnold Gonzalez-Reimann reimann at uclink.berkeley.edu
Tue May 21 18:27:54 UTC 1996

On Mon, 20 May 1996, Madhav Deshpande wrote:

> 	... what does the strict etymology of the word bhik.su
> provide us with:  ya.h bhik.sate sa bhik.su.h.  This would be perfectly
> Paninian bhik.s+u (cf. rule: sanaa"samsabhik.sa u.h).  However, this
> offers the most pedestrian value to the Buddhist: everybody who begs for
> alms is a bhik.su.  The Buddhist tradition would like to see some higher
> values expressed as the core-values for monkhood.  Those higher core
> values are expressed through the traditional Buddhist nirvacanas of the
> word bhik.su such as bhinnakle"sa or samsaare bhayam iik.sate.  The urge
> to extract these core-values by playing with the phonology of the word is
> as old as Yaaska's Nirukta.  This urge is, in my opinion, ultimately
> linked with the belief that a word/name is linked to an object on the
> basis of some essential property which is conveyed by that word. 
> [Kaatyaayana provides the first clear formulation of this notion in
> describing the meaning of the affix -tva : yasya hi gu.nasya bhaavaat
> dravye "sabdanive"sas tasyaabhidhaane tva-talau] While Yaaska's nirvacanas
> express this through his use of 'kasmaat', the later philosophers use
> terms like "sakyataavacchedaka or prav.rttinimitta :  the property or
> characteristic which motivates the use of a given word with reference to a
> given object.  If one is not particularly thrilled with the pedestrian
> values which most accurate etymologies provide, one was forced to come up
> with creative ways to extract one's higher values from the sounds of the
> same word.  This probably made the use of a given word seem even more
> appropriate.  It is in this sense, that the Buddhist nirvacanas of bhik.su
> as bhinnakle"sa or samsaare bhayam iik.sate provide us a better
> understanding of what the Buddhists are trying to convey.  An ideal
> bhik.su should rather be bhinnakle"sa etc., than a mere agent of
> the action of begging as Panini would have it.
> 	Madhav Deshpande 

The recent postings on the subject of etymology have given the discussion 
an interesting anti historical-etymological slant.  I fail to see why 
etymologies are "pedestrian," as prof. Deshpande describes them.  I find 
it interesting, for example, that Skt. deshin (the index finger) is a 
cognate of latin index, where both mean the same thing: the finger that 
points.  They are, in turn, also related to English "teach," as teaching 
implies pointing out something.  They all are derived from the same 
Indo-European root deik (Skt. dish).  This is very helpful in 
understanding how meanings either remain the same or are transformed.

That there is often a difference (big or small) between the etymological 
meaning of a term and its use at a certain moment and place was 
recognized by Sanskrit grammarians, and is also common knowledge in 
linguistics.  To take an example from astronomy/astrology, which is where 
discussion started anyway, how many people are aware that a disaster is a 
dis astrum, that is, what happens when one does not heed the stars?  So, 
yes, it is the usage of a term that defines its meaning at a certain 
point, and this meaning can stray far from its etymological origin 
(although the connection can usually be seen).

But if what we are after is extracting a "higher value" for a term, the 
situation is somewhat different. We are, then, in a way switching from a 
descriptive to a prescriptive mode. There is a difference between a 
meaning acquired in time through usage, and an imposed meaning meant to 
convey an idea or a belief.  This may serve as a didactic tool, and it 
may reinforce the particular belief, but it has nothing to do with the 
origin of the word.  If we are using these "etymologies" to understand 
these particular beliefs, that is, of course, useful.  But, as I 
mentioned in an earlier posting, they are often used purporting to be the 
original meaning, and they can be misleading when one is not 
studying/trying to understand/practicing that particular set of beliefs.

Take the word yoga.  Almost anybody who starts taking some classes 
nowadays will be told that yoga means union, because its aim is the union 
of the Atman (the individual soul) with Brahman (the Supreme soul), or, 
at least, the union of the two opposites represented by puruSa and prkRti.
This person will probably also read some of PataNjali's sUtras in this light.
But did yoga mean union for PataNjali? Quite the contrary we might say, 
for the aim of his yoga (in the sense of practice) was a state of 
kaivalya, isolation, in which puruSa, the soul, becomes aware of the fact 
that it is different from prakRti, nature. 
Although this is not really a folk etymology, as it does rely on one of 
the meanings of the verbal root, it still involves using one of the 
meanings of the term (with a Vedantic interpretation) and superimposing 
it on earlier texts where the 
meaning was different.  Without a historical analysis, this would not 
become clear.

Both diacronic and synchronic studies are valuable, it just depends on 
what we are studying, and from what perspective.


Luis Gonzalez-Reimann
Department of South and Southeast Asian Studies
University of California, Berkeley

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