September 21, 2007

Etymologist 10: Mantra

After going on about mantras in my last post, I realized that the word mantra is a good candidate for the next installment of Etymologist. Heading over to etymonline, we see:
1808, "that part of the Vedas which contains hymns," from Skt. mantra-s "sacred message or text, charm, spell, counsel," lit. "instrument of thought," related to manyate "thinks." Sense of "special word used for meditation" is first recorded in Eng. 1956.
This corresponds to Thai มนต์ or มนตร์ (the former is from Pali and the latter from Sanskrit; มนต์ is the more common spelling overall, though in some compound expressions one or the other is conventionalized). RID99 tells us:
มนต์, มนตร์ น. คําศักดิ์สิทธิ์, คําสําหรับสวดเพื่อเป็นสิริมงคล เช่น สวดมนต์, คำเสกเป่าที่ถือว่าศักดิ์สิทธิ์ เช่น ร่ายมนตร์ เวทมนตร์. (ป. มนฺต; ส. มนฺตฺร).

"n. sacred words, words to pray for good fortune, ex. suatmon; incantation that is held as sacred, ex. raaymon, weetmon. (P. manฺta; S. manฺtฺra)" [My translation]
This is a straightforward correspondence, although English obviously borrowed the word from Sanskrit, while Thai has both Pali and Sanskrit forms. สวดมนต์ is a common term meaning to pray, in the sense "to recite a Pali prayer." We might translate น้ำมนต์ as "holy water", meaning water that a Buddhist priest has prayed over
(I'm not sure what term the Catholic church in Thailand actually uses--anyone?).

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