The Creative Exploration of Language

Monthly Archives: June 2012


Most would define inspired as something like ‘animated’ or ‘excited’ but, as is the case with so many modern words, these definitions and associations focus on the result and not the root cause.  They fail to address the question of what is providing the force that is driving the animation or excitement being observed. 

As always with a multisyllabic word, the best way to understand it is to break it down into its constituent parts, examine and define them, and then build the word back up from its constituent parts. 

Inspire is constructed from the prefix in- meaning that something is ‘taken in’ or ‘consumed’ (think of ‘insert’ or in slightly altered form, ‘imbibe’) into some type of larger body, often a human one. 

The second half of the word, -spire, comes from the Latin word spirare which means ‘to breathe’.  So, read literally, the original meaning of ‘inspire’ is ‘to breathe in’ or ‘to take in a breath’. 

At this point, though, we are still dealing with a purely materialistic concept, the act of respiration (this word being another illustration of the same theme).  What we are missing in this functional understanding of the word is what the concept of ‘breath’ signifies in terms of the religious and esoteric thought that would have permeated the ancient world in which the word was formed: divinely delivered creative life energy.

For example, in the Völuspá it is Odin, the god of poetry and ecstasy, who provides man with breath, while in Judeo-Christian tradition God does the same for Adam.  Further afield, H.P. Blavatsky refers in The Secret Doctrine to the esoteric concept of vibration as “the thrill of the creative Breath in Nature.”  

All of these references point to the final connection we need to make in order to understand the true meaning of the word which, as Blavatsky points out explicitly, is related to receiving the breath of a god that imbues the recipient with creative powers. 

While this is most likely not uppermost in the minds of modern people when they use the word inspired, I believe that it is subconsciously understood due to the way the word is used, which is almost always in contexts related to creative endeavor, whether artistic or of some other variety.


I have always assumed that juggernaut fell naturally, if somewhat awkwardly, into the category of words that employed the suffix -naut, such as astronautcosmonaut and the now outdated aeronaut.

In this context,  the suffix refers to someone who journeys through whatever word it is attached to.  In the examples above, this would be space (astro- and cosmo-) for the first two and air (aero-) for the third.  The implication of journeying stems from the relatively common term nautical, which comes from the Greek root nautes, meaning “sailor.”

This is a perfectly logical reading and, based on this, I have always lumped juggernaut into this same category without ever considering the fact that I have no idea what a “jugger” is and therefore no concrete reference for what form a juggernaut might actually take.

However, this is a totally incorrect line of thinking.  As it turns out, juggernaut is a phonetic approximation of the Hindi term jagannath, which means “Lord of this World” and refers to Krishna.  The term comes from a religious ritual in which statues of Krishna and his brother Balabhadra are loaded into a gigantic cart or chariot and serve as the featured elements of a procession that was described (likely apocryphally) by Sir John Mandeville in the 14th century as crushing members of the crowd under its giant wheels.  While this is a gruesome image, it does nicely tie together the two concepts of the juggernaut as, in religious terms, the “Lord of the World” and, more prosaically,  something that moves forward in an unstoppable manner.

So, juggernaut appears to be the result of an accidental process whereby English speakers sought out the closest phonetic match for an unfamiliar word, regardless of meaning.  There is, however, an interesting theme at play in which words that originally have a sacred or religious connotation lose these associations, leaving only the profane meaning.  I have no idea how jagannath is used in modern Hindi, but its English cousin has totally lost its connection to Krishna as the “Lord of the World.”  All that remains is the sense of power and of a force that will crush all opposition under its wheels.


Blank is a straightforward word with a clear definition that everyone understands: empty, void, not filled in, etc.

However, the root of this word is somewhat surprising, and becomes obvious if one changes the ‘k’ at the end of the word to a ‘c’ and arrives at blanc, the French word for white.  This connection is not one of coincidence, as the word has deep roots in both languages, though it seems to originate on the Germanic rather than the Romance side of the linguistic divide.

Blank has cognates, such as blank in German, which mean shining or bright and therefore, by extension, white.

Here we have arrived at what is truly interesting about the word.  What does it mean that blankness connotes whiteness?  There are two interrelated answers to this question.

First, there is a literal interpretation.  As noted at the outset of this post, a common definition of blank is ’empty, not filled in’.  One is reminded of a blank form to be filled out or an exercise where one is asked to ‘fill in the blanks’ where the task at hand is to fill in the empty white spaces provided.  While this is a valid assessment of the word, it is also a limited one as it focuses only on its functional aspect.

The second interpretation is more esoteric and takes into account the importance of the concept of whiteness in Western thought, particularly as it relates to alchemy.  In this philosophical tradition, the albedo or white stage is an intermediate stage between the nigredo (black) and the rubedo (red) that involves a cleansing or purification of the soul, and, following Titus Burckhardt, the resulting state of purity is one whose essential characteristic is openness to influence.

Therefore, to view the quality of blankness in a purely functional and negative manner by characterizing it simply as a lack of something is shortsighted and misses the forest for the trees.  Flipped upside down and viewed positively,  it is clear that the key attribute of a blank is the fact that its emptiness assumes a future fulfillment.  It is not just an empty white space.  It is an empty white space waiting to be filled in.