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...


  1. Notwithstanding the "naut"ification of certain Godly names , it is interesting to note that the British kept the ethos of grandeur and bigness intact , when inventing juggernaut from Jaggannath.

    This inability to accept the common "a" sound, and the desperation to convert it into a stiff-upper-lip-unable-to-open-mouth-wide "au" sound was quite prominent back then.

    Parsi (Zorostrian) folks housing colonies in India were named as gardens or "Baag's" , as in Wadia Baag Today, they are referred to in English as Wadia "Baug.", thanks to the colonizers.

    "Charpai" was the local word for a rope based wooden cot often seen in rural India. (Char = four, and pai=feet"). You will notice that "Charpoy" is the British version.

    Most of our small towns had names ending with "gaav" which means "town"; similar to how they have place names in the US ending in "ville" (and never mind that its french in origin :-)). The British converted "gaav" into "gaum". And so we have Naigaum, Belgaum, Malegaum instead of Belgao,Naigao, and Malegao.

    One can go on and on about this.

    Its OK. We have so many languages of our own. One more hardly matters. There are many folks of nationalist tendencies who are trying to change the names back.

    We just continue to remember the most convenient name....

  2. Thank you, Ugich! I appreciate your making your way over here from Sucharita's blog. The main value of my blog, as far as I can tell, is that after I stumble around for a bit, often someone who actually knows something about the topic will weigh in.

    The condescension of colonization makes the whole mispronunciation more egrigious, but in fact, I think most of us have a hard time not mangling languages acquired languages, especially without teachers pointing out where we got it wrong.

  3. I you really did your research!
    But did you know what the real name of the X-men's Juggernaut was?
    Cain Marko.
    And he was always trying to kill his little stepbrother.
    Subtle, no?

  4. You know, I did notice that Juggernaut's original name was Cain Marko, but I utterly failed to take in the significance of that. Well, no one would ever call you evil, Marco, would they?

    No, I may have the temerity to try and describe an Indian festival that I've never been to, but even I am not foolhardy enough to hold forth on the esoteric facts of comic book culture without 100% certainty.

  5. I prostrate myself at the feet of this post, a whole world in just a few paragraphs.

    And did Indians have blaags before the British imposed upom them the pronunciation blaugs or, as spelled in simplified American English, blogs?
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  6. Well, thank you Peter, but as this blog illustrates, it can be unwise to prostrate yourself at the feet of anything.

    One thing that I found interesting is that the conversation that this all stems from contained both fact and misinformation and it's safe to say that none of the participants besides me went home and did any research to separate fact from fiction. It just seemed such a good illustration of how we typically "know" things.

  7. Seana,

    It makes one wonder how tenuous one's knowledge is of everything one takes for granted, doesn't it?

  8. A lot of the best words in English came through the East Indian Company into the language. Where would Jamie Oliver be without his pukka tucker?

  9. It's also cool to think that going way back, English and Indian ancestors were all speaking Proto Indo European, that from PIE two (of many) languages developed, and that when these two languages met up again they borrowed words from each other and commingled. The circularity there is interesting.

  10. Brian, I hadn't really thought about the diverging and remeeting of the two languages. Keeps things lively, doesn't it?

    This whole question of how we think we know anything came up at a discussion group I go to the other evening? It's interesting to think about who we do and do not trust as an authority. Much of it we do without any real thought whatsoever. Most scientific assertions for instance we just accept as received, trusting that someone else has done the vetting of it.

  11. Adrian, and it's interesting how many of those words came into British English but not so thoroughly into American English. If people know pukka here, it would be via Oliver.

    Thank god for chefs and their cultural disseminations.

  12. Sorry, I am rather late, more of a slowcoach than a juggernaut.

    Jagannath is a popular deity not only in Puri but elsewhere as well, as his philosophy of love and peace has been embraced by many 'Westerners' who associate with ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness). So, it is rather ironic that his name has been converted to convey the ruthless, unstoppable force of a juggernaut. It was actually his chariot (called 'rath') which was so huge that when it was pulled by his devotees on his birthday (celebrated as 'Janmasthami'), that many of the devotees who had gathered to watch the spectacle were crushed under its wheels. Jagannath, who had spent his entire childhood fighting demons and wooing damsels, would not have approved.

    And Peter, I do not know any Indian blauggers, but Indian 'bag's (pronounced 'baug' and meaning 'gardens') are better than English 'bogs', would you not agree?

  13. There's no 'late' when it comes to this blog, Sucharita your comments are always welcome, and this one like Ugich's is particularly informative and well worth the wait.

    I've been missing your blog (no pressure or anything!), and am glad to see that there is a fresh new post for me to read.

  14. I love the journey you take to track down the origin of jaggernaut. This is why I love and miss William Safire; it's nice to have you here, picking up where he left off.

  15. Those are some mighty big shoes to fill, Martha.

    I liked your version of juggernaut, jaggernaut, which is both truer to its origin, and gives me quite a vision of old Mick's version of one of these holy processions. I'm sure a devotee or two would be crushed under his 'rath'.