Juggernaut

Now juggernaut is an odd little word. Firstly, just saying it aloud is fun. There’s something about the syllables that give it a nice bounce. But the meaning is a bit trickier. Correct me if I’m wrong but I had always understood a juggernaut to be a particularly large lorry or truck, something like this definition from thefreedictionary.com:

2. (Engineering / Automotive Engineering) Brit a very large lorry for transporting goods by road, esp one that travels throughout Europe

Yet when you start to dig around in juggernaut, it seems that this meaning isn’t that common after all and some dictionaries don’t even include it. Many definitions refer to a meaning more like this one:

3. Used as a title for the Hindu deity Krishna.

Juggernaut, then, came into English through Hindi with the word jagannath, meaning ‘lord of the world’. This in fact came from Sanskrit jagat, meaning ‘world’ – or more literally ‘moving’ which in turn comes from Proto-Indo-European *gwa- ‘to go, come’ – and nathas, meaning ‘lord master’ – also from a Proto-Indo-European root *na-, ‘to help’.
So in Hindi, the term refers to an annual Hindu festival when a crude idol of Krishna is paraded through the town on a giant chariots throughout Orissa and Bengal. According to legend, devotees supposedly threw themselves under the chariots, allowing themselves to be crushed in sacrifice. From this idea, we get other meanings, such as:

1. Something, such as a belief or institution, that elicits blind and destructive devotion or to which people are ruthlessly sacrificed.
2. An overwhelming, advancing force that crushes or seems to crush everything in its path

And, presumably, the concept of a large, heavy chariot was extended to refer to large, heavy lorries. Although Partridge points out that devotees never did throw themselves to an untimely death, and that’s probably a good thing, the story did at least add a new word to our language.

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