June 13, 2012
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I have 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somewhat awkwardly, into the category of words that employed the suffix -naut, such as astronaut, cosmonaut and the now outdated aeronaut.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 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.