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

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!

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

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