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avatar

NOUN


“Avatar” has three distinct (though historically connected) meanings:

  • Literally: one of the physical embodiments of the Hindu god Vishnu (he could adopt various shapes);
  • Figuratively: someone being such a good exemplar of a quality (e.g. goodness) that it’s like they’re the embodiment of that quality (e.g. “She’s an avatar of goodness”).
  • On the computer: your character in a virtual world.
 
Sounds like: A-vuh-tar (IPA: /’ævətar/)

Etymology

Diagram showing etymology of 'Avatar'.

Etymology of ‘Avatar’

Vishnu who?

To his Hindu worshippers, Vishnu is the supreme god: the source of creation who pervades and preserves the universe—plus he looks pretty cool, with (in his basic form) blue skin and four arms.

Illustration of Vishnu

Lord Vishnu

One of the interesting things about Vishnu is that he can also appear in all kinds of different physical forms. One day he might come down to earth as giant tortoise. The next, a little dwarf. Another day, maybe a cross between a man and a lion—whatever it takes to preserve the universe at the time.

Now, when a spiritual being comes down and takes on a particular physical form, Sanskrit speakers call this an “avatarati”. Literally that means a descent, and the word breaks down like this:

  • “tarati” – cross over (from the ancient Indo-European root “*tere” —also the source of English words through and throw)
  • “ava” – down
  • “avatarati” – descent

English scholars, translating the Sanskrit texts into English in the 1700’s, simplified the word a little—and that is where, etymologically, our word avatar comes from.

Vishnu’s avatars

Some of the awesome avatars of Vishnu include:

  • Matsya: a great horned fish. In this avatar, Vishnu saved the first human from a deluge at the start of this world.
    Matsya image

    Matsya


  • Kurma: a giant tortoise. In this avatar, Vishnu held up a mountain while the world was churned.
    Illustration of Kurma

    Kurma


  • Varaha: a great horned boar. In this avatar, Vishnu saved the earth (who is also a goddess) by raising her out of the ocean on his tusks.
    Illustration of Varaha

    Varaha


  • Vamana: a dwarf. In this avatar, Vishnu appeared before Bali, who had stolen the world from the gods; Bali foolishly told the dwarf “take as much land as you can cover in three strides”—at which point, Vishnu transformed back into his full huge self, and covered the whole world in three steps. Heh heh.
    Illustration of Vamana

    Vamana


  • Buddha Yep, at least according to some traditions, Buddha, is also an avatar of Vishnu.
    Illustration of Buddha

    Buddha


Avatar as the embodiment of an abstraction

In the 1800’s avatar became a fairly common English word—not so much in the literal religious sense, but on a generalized sense of “embodiment of any abstract idea or characteristic”. Examples of this way of using the word would be:

  • Bonaparte is the avatar of evil!
  • Asaad acts like he’s the avatar of Arab nationalism.
  • Mary’s formulas are amazing—she’s truly the avatar of mathematics!

Avatars in virtual worlds

Drawing of author Neal Stephenson

Sci-fi author Neal Stephenson

Of course, modern English speakers now use avatar in a new sense: as a word for our embodiments, as we “descend” and take on various forms in the digital worlds that we create.

When exactly did this new sense of avatar start? Though at least one computer game did use the word avatar before him, most people credit the Sci-Fi author Neal Stephenson as the real popularizer. In 1992, Stephenson used the term in the new way in a hugely popular book called “Snow Crash”, a strange story about language and computer worlds (Sumerian is the binary code for human language??!); Snow Crash was especially popular with computer programmers (who are, apparently, often into Sci-Fi)—who then enthusiastically adopted this new meaning for avatar.

And so it is that, in this passage from Snow Crash, we see something close to the birth of a brand new—but nicely apt—sense for an ancient word (emphasis added):

As Hiro approaches the street, he sees two couples probably using their parent’s computer for a double date in the Metaverse. He’s not seeing real people, of course. It’s all part of a moving illustration created by his computer from specifications coming down the fiber optic cable. These people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse.


Sources

  • Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, n.d. Web. 03 Aug. 2013. <http://etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0>.
  • The Oxford English Dictionary by Simpson, J. A and Weiner, E. S. C
    1989, 2nd ed, ISBN 9780198611868, 20 v.
  • The Oxford Companion to World Mythology, Leeming, David, 2005 Oxford University Press, Incorporated
  • Snow Crash, Stephenson, Neal, 1992, Bantam books.

Dwarf avatar image is by Mughal Style [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Mataya avatar is by Anant Shivaji Desai, Ravi Varma Press [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Other avatars and image of Vishnu are adapated from image by Raja Ravi Varma [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Buddha image is adapted from image by Ineb-2553 (Own work) [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

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