The Creative Exploration of Language


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somewhat awkwardly, into the category of words that employed the suffix -naut, such as astronaut, cosmonaut and the now outdated aeronaut.

In this context the suffix is indicating that the person being described by the word is one who journeys through whatever word comes before it.  In my examples above, this would be space for the first two and the air for the third.  The implication of journeying provided by the suffix stems from its more common use in the term nautical, which is used in relation to the sea and sailing.  This word comes from the Greek root nautes, which means ‘sailor’.

This is a perfectly logical and correct reading and, based on this, I had always lumped juggernaut into this same category without ever considering the fact that I had no idea what a ‘jugger’ was and therefore no concrete reference for what form a juggernaut might actually take.  This plays into the mystique of the word as defining something of uncertain form that can not be stopped.

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 are the featured elements of a procession that was described (most likley 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 the ‘Lord of the World’ and the ‘unstoppable force’.

The development of this word mirrors that of many others in that, in modern usage, the original religious meaning that provides the animating spirit to the whole concept has been lost, while the secondary, profane meaning of the word that describes the end result has remained.  In other words, while we understand that a juggernaut is a force that cannot be stopped and which will crush all opposition under its wheels, the reason why this is so, because it is the Lord of the World, has been forgotten.

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