Friday, September 25, 2009


Okay, I think we all know what this means. It means something like 'a force that comes along and runs you down or tears you limb from limb'. Right?

I was having dinner with friends the other night and someone brought up this word, mentioning that 'juggernaut' stems from an Indian festival where the procession of the local god, in the form of a statue, would be wheeled through the streets, with the unfortunate side effect of, well, mowing down some of the devotees.

Fair enough. True or not, it wouldn't have roused my blogging instincts, except that someone asked, "India? But juggernaut's been around a long time in the West, hasn't it? Doesn't it have to with do Roman soldiers somehow?"

So I started thinking that the "-naut" part of the word "juggernaut" certainly sounds Western. Jason and the Argonauts, for example. And "astronaut" as well. But I am pretty sure the first person had it right about the Indian festival, because this sounded familiar. But "juggernaut" has got to be a hybrid.

Or does it?

Well, yes and no, but mostly no. I'll beg forgiveness in advance from any Indian or even Hindu knowledgable readers here for this cobbled together explanation, which they should of course feel free to correct. The source for "juggernaut" is Jagannath, or, more precisely, "Lord of the World", a title for Vishnu, particularly in the form of his avatar, Krishna. At a festival held in Puri (no, of course I don't know precisely where in India that is--must I do everything?) Krishna is drawn in a cart through the streets, and apparently western observers--I'm guessing British, since they were the colonizers--got the wrong end of the stick and thought that devotees threw themselves under the wheels in their devotion to the god, but apparently, it was more a case of devotees simply getting run over in the crush of the crowd.

So. Where are we? First, I can't find any indication that juggernauts had any connection with the Roman army at all. What I am curious about is where this friend got this idea. My hunch is that there is some confusion of words, maybe even with the fabled Greek Argonauts, which led her to think the word had reached the west a lot earlier than it did. I'm guessing that the "-naut" instead of the "nath" ending is simply a Western reaching for an approximately related sound. In reality, the word seems to have leapt the Hindi-English divide as recently as 1841, and it's revealing that "juggernaut" is used as a word for a big, heavy truck, the usage being "chiefly British".

I am a bit unhappy to report that our English word juggernaut may have taken a perfectly lovely Indian festival, and used it as a metaphor for the horrible. In one sense, we have it being used as a synonym for a steamroller, and in another extension, to mean a blind or destructive devotion to an institution that treats people like fodder.

We can end on a lighter note, though, surely. It's possible that one or two readers of this blog will be unhappy at my leaving out the most recent avatar of the word, Juggernaut of the XMen comics. It is possibly even a sign of hope and a changing attitude about juggernauts in general, that Juggernaut started out as a pure villain in the XMen comics, and then took on new and more complex roles for awhile. But like his Indian--born verbal counterpart, Juggernaut is finding that "villain" is a hard role to shake...

Monday, September 7, 2009

Copywriter, right?

After reading Nathanael Green's lucid blog post 6 Reasons Why You Need a Copywriter, I confessed that my idea of what a copywriter does had only become clear--or clearer--quite recently. He suggested that it might make a good post here, and whether or not it proves interesting to others, I did want to think about a kind of tangle of words that I was somehow caught up in, a situation which I'll assume is not unique to me, because, for better or worse, nothing ever is.

As Nate says on his blog, copywriting has nothing to do with copyrighting, which may seem obvious now it's spelled out, but perhaps is part of the problem. It's not that I thought copywriters were people who sat around crunching out copyrights all day, but I do believe that this second twin word lingering in the back of my mind may have lead me to think that copywriting was a more esoteric craft than it is.

(What it is I thought copywriters did I can no longer pin down, anymore than I can pin down a dozen other vague assumptions that I don't trouble to define.)

Copywriters write copy. Period. They write texts for others, often to help them sell something, though not always. (Hmm--perhaps the real word of ignorance here is simply "copy".).

At any rate, it's not hard to be a copywriter. If you can write, or more likely, type, you too can be a copywriter. Comforting, isn't it? Something to fall back on in these tough economic times. But there's a catch. (You knew there would be.) Writing copy doesn't make you a good copywriter. And if you want to get paid for your troubles, you'd better be a damn good one.

What does it take to be a damn good copywriter? Well, let me take my analogy from another medium--television. And not just television, but cable television. And not just cable television but a channel like QVC or the Home Shopping Channel.

I love these shows. I don't buy anything. I'm not even tempted to buy anything, because in my heart of hearts, I am not a shopper. But I love watching the host, or more likely the hostess, take one in a long line of very similar things--handbags, maybe, or jewelry, dolls, whatever and confer distinction upon it by their powers of description. "Look at these cute buttons!" she'll say, or "Doesn't Tanya look stunning in those peridot earrings?" (And, no, I don't know what peridot is--I only know that it is highly desirable--at least, I know it for the length of the show.)

It sounds easy, but you try it sometime. I once saw a hostess lovingly describe the front of a portable radio. If you think it's easy to lavish attention on a black plastic box capable of AM-FM reception in a new and inviting way, think again.

However if you think you could do that, and do it in the cold and less visually helpful medium of print, then, yeah, you should probably think of becoming a copywriter as one of your options.

If it works out, you can buy me a peridot ring to thank me. I know just where you can look for one.