Spotify CEO Daniel Ek caused an uproar last week (and rightly so) when he suggested in a tweet that the cost of creating content is now “close to zero.” One wonders how much or what kind of “content” Mr. Ek has created if he believes creative work costs the creator so little. (I will save for another day my rant about the word “content.”)

In one of the many social media posts I have seen about Mr. Ek’s ill-considered tweet, somebody referred to Spotify as a juggernaut. The word sent me down an etymology rabbit hole. A juggernaut, if you’re not familiar with the word, is an inexorable force or object that crushes everything in its path. Spotify, for example. Dominant sports teams are often described as juggernauts. Coca Cola is a marketing juggernaut. Perhaps the most famous literary use of the term comes from Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, when Mr. Enfield reports seeing Mr. Hyde trample a little girl:

All at once, I saw two figures: one a little man who was stumping along eastward at a good walk, and the other a girl of maybe eight or ten who was running as hard as she was able down a cross street. Well, sir, the two ran into one another naturally enough at the corner; and then came the horrible part of the thing; for the man trampled calmly over the child’s body and left her screaming on the ground. It sounds nothing to hear, but it was hellish to see. It wasn’t like a man; it was like some damned Juggernaut.

Long ago I got it in my head that the word juggernaut must have originated as some kind of ancient nautical reference. The suffix –naut, from the Latin navis, “ship,” means “sailor,” as in astronaut (“stair-sailor”) and cosmonaut (“cosmos-sailor”). Jason had his Argonauts. Maybe some other mythical hero had Juggernauts. Mixed in there somewhere was the idea of ancient warships ramming into one another.* Maybe a juggernaut was a ship that was especially good at crushing ships in its path?

As a matter of fact, the word juggernaut has no connection to nautical terms. The Hindi word Jagganath is a Hindi title for Krishna. It literally means “Lord of the world.” In an annual festival in India, a huge wagon bearing the image of Krishna (Jagganath) was drawn through the streets. A Western observer in the fourteenth century reported that, as part of the festival, devout Hindus allowed themselves to crushed to death under the wheels of the Jagganath wagon. The idea that festival-goers intentionally allowed themselves to be crushed is now considered apocryphal. But the idea of a god in a huge vehicle crushing his own devotees seems to have stuck in the Western imagination. By the seventeenth century, Jaggernath had entered our language, anglicized to Juggernaut. I haven’t read any etymologist or linguist comment on the strange fact that the last syllable, when it got anglicized, exactly matched the suffix meaning “sailor.” Were people confused about the nature of the Jaggernath, think of the vehicle as a ship rather than a wagon?

My own tendency to confuse juggernauts with ships was probably influenced by the word Dreadnought, which refers to a class of heavily armed warships. That second syllable, though it sounds like –naut, is completely unrelated to the Latin navisNought means “nothing.”** Dreadnought literally means “dread-nothing,” that is to say, “fearless.” It was originally the name of an individual, heavily armed ship in the early twentieth century. Soon other ships were built on the same lines, and the name Dreadnought was applied to the whole category.

Navis, of course, is the root of navigate, Navy, naval, etc. It is also the root of the word nave, the main part of a church where most of the congregants sit. That may be because the main part of a church is shaped sort of like an upside-down ship. Or it may come from the metaphor of the church as a kind of ship or ark in which God’s people float safely on the stormy seas of life.

The word navel, you won’t be surprised to learn, has no relation to navis. When I was little, I ran across the following not-very-funny joke in a not-very-funny book of “Clean Jokes for Kids”:

Person A: What kind of doctor are you?
Person B: I’m a naval surgeon.
Person A: My, how you doctors specialize!

Since I didn’t know surgeons who worked for the navy were called naval surgeons, the humor was lost on me. I thought the joke was that somebody would devote his career to operating on belly-buttons. That is to say, I was on the side of the straight man. But it obviously made an impression on me; it has been forty-five or fifty years since I last saw that joke book, and I still remember the joke.

Bonus etymology: The prow of a Roman warship was called a rostrum. It literally means “beak” or “snout.” In the Roman forum, the speaker’s platform was decorated with the rostra from ships defeated in naval battles. That’s why a speaker’s platform is still sometimes called a rostrum.

** Even more bonus etymology: That word nought, “nothing” is essentially the same word as naught, as in “all for naught”—”all for nothing.” The word naughty means, essentially, “good for nothing.”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Get a Quote