|“Avatar” has three distinct (though historically connected) meanings:
|Sounds like: A-vuh-tar (IPA: /’ævətar/)|
|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.
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:
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.
Some of the awesome avatars of Vishnu include:
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:
Avatars in virtual worlds
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):
- 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