Ironic Etymology of the Day: 'Pundit' Comes From a Sanskrit Word for 'Spiritual Leader'

More

From Hindu scholars to talking heads...

A 19th century manuscript of the Rigveda (Wikimedia Commons)

In America, we use "pundit" to mean "opinion writer whom everyone criticizes for incautious behavior." Wouldn't you know it, the word in fact comes from an ancient Hindu honorific denoting a spiritual leader. The Sanskrit पण्डित (frequently transliterated as pandit, pundit, or pandita) referred in its original use specifically to a person who had memorized a substantial portion of the Vedas, which are the primary texts of Hinduism. The term frequently applied, and applies, to Brahmins, or members of the Hindu priestly caste.

We first see the word used in English in the 17th century to refer to an Indian legal scholar. In both English and Sanskrit (the parent language of Hindi), it evolved over time but retained its intellectual connotations. In the 19th century, the Oxford Sanskrit scholar Monier Monier-Williams translated pandita as "a scholar, a learned man, teacher, [or] philosopher." Under British occupation, it also named the native surveyors who mapped the northern parts of India for the imperial power.

But look! With a few extra syllables affixed to the end, the word pandit takes on other shades of meaning. See, for instance, the entry under panditammanya in Monier-Williams's Sanskrit dictionary:

panditammanyaentry.jpg

Excepting the panditammanyas, these Indian pundits seem highly likable. Several members of the Nehru family have been pundits. Ravi Shankar is one, too.

There's your positive spin on the past week's news. Hooray for pundits!

Jump to comments
Presented by

Emily Chertoff is a former writer and producer for The Atlantic's National channel.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Why Are Americans So Bad at Saving Money?

The US is particularly miserable at putting aside money for the future. Should we blame our paychecks or our psychology?


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Death of Film

You'll never hear the whirring sound of a projector again.

Video

How to Hunt With Poison Darts

A Borneo hunter explains one of his tribe's oldest customs: the art of the blowpipe

Video

A Delightful, Pixar-Inspired Cartoon

An action figure and his reluctant sidekick trek across a kitchen in search of treasure.

Video

I Am an Undocumented Immigrant

"I look like a typical young American."

Video

Why Did I Study Physics?

Using hand-drawn cartoons to explain an academic passion

Writers

Up
Down

More in National

Just In