Meaning: The idea, and the word

The idea of meaning plays a very big role in the sort of material that I discuss on this website, especially since the distinction between an “outer” or exoteric meaning, and one or more “inner” or esoteric meanings, is a crucial one to make when trying to make sense of traditional religions.  And, more generally, I believe that the idea of meaning lies at the heart of all human experience.  But it is interesting that the very word “meaning” seems to be etymologically related to a number of words found in languages from around the world, all of which words appear to me to be derived from some sort of common “M-N” root; and the meanings of these words are all related either to the ideas of “meaning” or “mind,” or to the ideas of “man” or “mankind.”  And I believe the apparent pervasiveness of this possible linguistic root serves as evidence of the crucial importance in human thought of the idea of meaning.  Moreover, it is precisely because the idea of meaning is so fundamental to human thought that it cannot be considered likely that the occurrence of words of this kind in such a wide variety of languages is due to borrowing that is at all recent; and it is also unlikely to be due to coincidence.

An important example of such a word is mana, found in Polynesian languages.  I believe this word can be properly thought of as referring to an idea similar or related to the idea corresponding to the English word “meaning.”  According to anthropologist Paul Radin, in his book Primitive Man as Philosopher,

Every discussion of mana must necessarily go back to the famous definition of [the missionary and anthropologist Bishop R. H.] Codrington:  “Mana is a force altogether distinct from physical power which acts in all kinds of ways for good and evil and which it is of the greatest advantage to possess and control … (and which) shows itself in physical force or in any kind of power or excellence which a man possesses.”  This has been the generally accepted view since Codrington’s time.[1]

This description is consistent with my hypothesis that the Polynesian word mana roughly corresponds to the idea of “meaning.”  Radin also writes, “A Fiji Islander told an investigator that ‘a thing has mana when it works; it has not mana when it doesn’t work.’”[2]  This idea of “inefficacy” is likewise consistent with the notion of “meaninglessness” or “pointlessness” or “futility.”  The word mana is also sometimes described as having the meaning of “prestige.”  This can be compared to the way in which English-speakers might refer to someone who enjoys prestige as a person “of significance,” and say of someone who lacks prestige that he is a person “of no significance” or “of little significance”; and there is a great deal of overlap between the meanings of the English words “significance” and “meaning.”  Also, Codrington’s description of mana as a kind of “force” should be considered in connection with one of the New Testament passages that I discuss in my essay Against the Lie, 1 Corinthians 14:10-11, in which Paul writes,

It so happens that there are a great many kinds [genos] of language [or speech, or “sound”: phōné] in the world, and none is soundless [or, “lacking in (mere) sound”: a-phōnos]; therefore, if I do not know the meaning [more literally, “power,” or “force”: dynamis] of the sound [or language: phōné], I will be a foreigner [more literally, “barbarian”: barbaros] to the one speaking [laleō], and the one speaking [laleō] a foreigner [barbaros] to me.

The Greek word dynamis can mean, in addition to “meaning,” also “force, power, strength (including physical strength), might, worth, value, function, faculty, ability, capacity, efficacy, influence, authority.”  This range of meanings is very similar to that which the Polynesian word mana is said to be able to express.

My sense is that the word mana can generally be defined as whatever is special, worthy of attention, interesting, meaningful, significant, or important.  And this is also what the words “sacred,” “divine,” and “holy” (as they are found in all cultures) generally seem to refer to.  The word “profane,” on the other hand, seems to be equivalent to “pointless” or “meaningless” or “senseless”:  having no good purpose.  That which is “profane” is “useless” or “futile”—but only from a certain perspective:  that of those who understand “what really matters.”  Those who are “profane” are interested in the wrong things, and are therefore pursuing the wrong aims in life, at least in the eyes of those who perceive themselves as “sacred.”  And this potentially relates the Polynesian word mana and the English word “meaning” to the English word “man” and variations thereon, as those who were perceived to live meaningless and thoughtless lives would not have been perceived to be “real human beings.”  In fact, it is my understanding that “real human being” is a title that is applied to accomplished spiritual initiates in various traditions.

Furthermore, there appears to be an etymological connection between the English words “meaning” and “man,” and English words such as “mind,” “mental,” the noun “mean” (as in, “golden mean” or “arithmetic mean”), and possibly also “moon.”[3]  And analogs of these words, in terms of both sound and meaning, can be found in many other languages (of which I give some examples below).  It is particularly significant that the word “meaning” seems to be related to both the English word (and the idea) of “com-mon”—as is more clearly suggested by the English noun “mean”—as well as the English word (and the idea) of “com-mun-ity.”  (Both of these words, by the way, are Latin-derived.)  This, I think, is a reflection of the fact that for a “meaning” to indeed be meaningful, it must, as part of its very definition or nature, be generally shared.

As I noted, one can find a number of “M-N” words in various world languages that relate to ideas of meaning, mind, thought, intention, purpose, desire, wish, spirit, or spiritual ecstasy—which is a mental state in which especially “meaning-rich” communications are supposedly made, or in which possible meanings for symbols are discerned more readily, or in which a person can supposedly discern the divine intent more readily.  (The close connection between the ideas of “meaning,” “intentionality,” “purpose,” “desire,” and “wish,” is illustrated by our saying in English that a person “means to do such-and-such.”)  For example, in Avestan (an ancient Iranian language), manah means “mind, purpose,” mainyu means “spirit,” and manahya means “spiritual.”  In Sanskrit, manisha means “thought, an expression of thought,” manas means “understanding, spirit,” man and manyate mean “to think, to believe, to consider, to remember,” and manyu means “spirit, mind.”  In Latin, mens and mentis mean “mind, reason, intellect,” and moneo and monere mean “to remind.”  In Greek, mimnéskō means “to remind, to remember,” manteia means “oracle, prophecy, prophetic power, power of divination,” menos means “purpose, intent, wish, desire, spirit, passion, spiritual exaltation, ardor, power, strength, force,”[4] menoinaō means “to intend, to purpose,” meneainō means “to long for ardently, to desire,” and memona means “to be eager, to purpose, to intend, to be mindful (of something).”  In Kui (a Dravidian language spoken in India), the word manda (mandi-) means “to have a fixed intention, to intend, to aim at, to desire, to wish.”  In Old Persian, man means “to think.”  In Lithuanian, mane means “to think.”  In Tocharian B (an extinct Indo-European language that was spoken in what is now northwestern China), manu means “desire.”  In Old Church Slavic or Slavonic, meniti means “to think, to have an opinion.”  In Old Irish, mian means “to wish, to desire.”  In Classical Ethiopic, mny and tamannaya mean “to wish, to desire, to be eager for.”  In Hebrew, ma’an means “purpose, intent.”  In both Arabic and Modern Persian, mana means “meaning.”[5]

(Notice, by the way, that not all of these languages are “Indo-European” languages.)

In the ancient Egyptian Hymn to Aten, the god Amon or Amun—probably pronounced “amana” in ancient Egyptian[6]—is described in the following way:

When thou crossest the sky, all faces behold thee, but when thou departest, thou are hidden from their faces….[7]

This brings to mind Revelation 2:17, in which Jesus says,

To the one conquering [or overcoming, or prevailing: nikaō] I will give [didōmi] from the hidden [kryptō] manna [Greek manna], and I will give him a white [or clear, or limpid, or distinct, or light, or bright: leukos] stone [or pebble: pséphos], and on the stone [pséphos], a new [kainos] name [onoma] written [graphō], which no one has come to know [or has come to perceive, or has come to notice, or has come to discern: eidō] except the one receiving [lambanō] it.[8]

In both of the quoted passages, I surmise that the intended reference was to the “hidden meaning,” or “esoteric meaning,” or “true meaning” of the myths or scriptures of the religion involved.  Revelation 2:17 in particular hearkens back to Exodus 16:15, the source of the New Testament Greek word manna, a word which is derived from the Hebrew statement or question that the Israelites utter—and, significantly, utter to each other—upon seeing the manna that has “rained from heaven”:  man hu, meaning either “It is man [leaving man untranslated for now]” or “What is it?” (but more likely the former, I think):

When the sons of Israel saw [or perceived: ra’ah; LXX Greek: eidō] it, they said, each man to his brother [ach], “It [hu] (is) man.”  [Or, “What (is) it [hu]?”; LXX: “What is this?”]  For they did not know [or understand, or perceive: yada; LXX Greek: eidō] what [mah] it [hu] (was).  And Moses said to them, “It is the bread that the Lord has given to you to eat.”[9]  [Exodus 16:15.]

The ancient Egyptian, Ethiopic, Assyrian, Canaanite, Aramaic, and Arabic languages all contain words, such as mannu, manu, man, mn, ment, ma, mi, and mah, that mean “what,” “how,” or “why.”  The Hebrew word man is possibly derived from the Hebrew word mah, an interrogative particle or pronoun having that same meaning of “what,” “how,” or “why”; but it is also conceivable that the direction of the derivation may have been the other way around.  In any event, the fact that this very passage uses the Hebrew word mah to mean “what” seems to make it unlikely that the Hebrew word man would have been used to mean exactly the same thing as that.

The true, original meaning of the Hebrew word man is actually something of a mystery to scholars.[10]  But it strikes me as conceivable that the word mah might actually have been substantivized into the word man to mean something like “whatness,” in the sense of “essence,” or “nature,” or “definition,” or “meaning”—or, to be more precise in this particular case, perhaps something like “an intimation of the existence of a certain meaning.”  One might find a suggestion in the passage that something would have been described as “manna” after a person was able to “see” or “perceive” it (ra’ah), but before he was able to “know” or “understand” it (yada).[11]  Perhaps the image of the Israelites eye-witnessing the “raining down of manna” was meant to signify the initial realization that there was a certain inner meaning to be found within a particular symbol or parable.[12]  Another possibility—and one not necessarily inconsistent with the one I just offered—is that the word man or “manna” had the meaning of “mystery”; this is suggested by the fact that the verse specifically tells us that the Israelites used the word man to describe what they were seeing “because they did not know what it was.”  The word “mystery” as I am using it here should be understood both in its more everyday sense and also in the sense conveyed by the Greek word mystérion, meaning “secret, secret teaching, secret doctrine, hidden knowledge, hidden meaning.”  According to such an hypothesis, there would actually be a redundancy in the language of Revelation 2:17 included for the sake of emphasis when Jesus speaks of “the hidden manna.”

As I have already mentioned, there appears to be an etymological connection between the English words “meaning” and “man.”  The English word “man” is proposed to be derived from the Proto-Indo-European root *man– (1), meaning “man”; moreover, the Sanskrit and Avestan words for “man” are manuh and manu-, respectively.  Consider the following in light of such a connection.  The Yao people of China, Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand speak languages in the HmongMien language family.  The following languages can be found in its Mienic sub-family:  Biao Min, Chao Kong Meng, Moxi, Biao Mon, Iu Mien, Kim Mun, Dzao Min—which give us the words min, meng, mo, mon, mien, and mun, all of which seem to be based on the same “M-N” root to which I keep referring.  The reason I conclude that is because, according to the article from which I obtained this information, at least the names “Mien,” “Muen,” and “Mun” mean “human being”; and, based on that fact, I consider it likely that the other words/names in the Mienic sub-family do (or once did) as well.[13]  I had some trouble finding the meaning of the word Hmong, the name of the other language sub-family (and also the name of a people), but I found the following posted in a message forum by a member of the Hmong people (the bracketed insertions are mine):

The word Hmong means many things, depending on context.  1. Hmong = a euphemism for a girl’s or woman’s boyfriend, one everyone else is not yet comfortable addressing openly as boyfriend [“that guy”].  2. Hmong = strangers [“those guys”].  3. Hmong = humans as compared to animals or things, e.g. when two people see a figure on a distant hill that they can’t identify clearly who it is but can clearly tell that it’s a human and not an animal, they’d tell each other “that’s Hmong only” or “that’s Hmong, of course.”  4. Hmong = the Hmong people as opposed to non-Hmong, e.g. Chinese, Thais, Japanese, etc.[14]

Putting all of the above together, it appears that Hmong, like the other words that I mentioned, also means “man,” or “human being”—once again providing evidence of the pervasiveness among various world languages of “M-N” words that have meanings that are similar to one another.



[1] Dover, 2002 [1927], pp. 253-54.  The ellipsis and parentheses are found in the quotation as Radin gives it.

[2] Ibid., pp. 244-45.

[3] Incidentally, I also suspect that there might be an etymological relation between these English words and the English word “money” (which is derived from the Latin language).  Besides the superficial similarity of the words, consider that “money” is put into “com-mon” or general circulation in society.  But I think a more likely reason why there might be a relation would be that “money” is “weighed” or “measured.”  And if such a notion does in fact account for the word’s origin, then the English word “money” would be related to the Aramaic verb menah, meaning “to weigh, to measure”; the Aramaic noun mene, meaning “a weighing, a measurement, a measuring”; and the Aramaic noun mina, meaning “a measure of weight or money”—all of which Aramaic words, as I will explain in a future post, can be conceptually related to the “M-N” words.

[4] Thus we see a connection between the general notion of “purpose, intent, or desire,” and that of “power, strength, or force”—the same connection that we find in the Greek word dynamis and, I believe also, in the Polynesian word mana.

[5] I happened across the following quotation on the internet, attributed to one of Carlos Casteneda’s books (which I have not confirmed):  “In the universe there is an immeasurable, indescribable force which shamans call intent, and absolutely everything that exists in the entire cosmos is attached to intent by a connecting link.”  Notice how well this quotation describes what I think is the core essential meaning of the Polynesian word mana and the whole family of “M-N” words, by its association of the idea of “force” (or “power,” or “stength”) with that of “intent” (or “meaning,” or “purpose”).  It also gives an added significance to John 1:1-5, if one were to choose to translate the Greek word logos in John 1:1 as “Meaning” (or “Intent,” or “Purpose”) rather than “Word” (given that, as a general matter, the English words “meaning” and “word” can both be used to translate logos).

[6] Douglas J. Brewer and Emily Teeter, Egypt and the Egyptians (Cambridge University Press, 1999), p. 123.

[7] John A. Wilson, The Burden of Egypt (University of Chicago Press, 1951), p. 211.  Might the “departing” of the god Amon correspond to the Ascension of Jesus (see Acts 1:6-11) that was understood to precede his Second Coming?

[8] In The Guide of the Perplexed (University of Chicago Press, 1963; Shlomo Pines, trans.), Maimonides says, in explicating Exodus 24:10, “As for the whiteness of sapphire [Hebrew sappir] stone, the expression is intended to signify transparency and not a white color.  For the whiteness of a crystal [Arabic billūr] is not due to a white color, but solely to its transparency.” (p. 61; the bracketed insertions are mine; the italics are in the translated text.  The translator notes that “[t]he use of this Arabic word may mean that Maimonides considered that the Hebrew word sappir (sapphire) meant “crystal.”)  If Maimonides is correct, then that would make it more likely that the term “white stone” found in Revelation 2:17 was in fact meant to refer to a transparent stone—in other words, a gemstone or crystal.  If so, then the passage would seem to be suggesting that for the person who “conquered” or “overcame” or “prevailed” (nikaō), the “stone” (signifying the “outer meaning,” I believe) would henceforth be able to transmit “light”—that is, the “inner meaning,” or what I think Revelation 2:17 is calling the “hidden manna.”

[9] I offer in passing a suggestion that the Hebrew word ach or “brother” may have been meant to have an esoteric meaning of some kind, just as the Greek word adelphos, also having the meaning of “brother,” may have been intended to have a similar esoteric meaning when that word was used in the New Testament.  My suspicion is that the word “brother” may have been used to refer to someone with whom a person felt free to fully share his most truly intended or “best” or most “inner” meanings.

[10] See generally Zvi Ron, “‘What is it?’: Interpreting Exodus 16:15,” Jewish Bible Quarterly, Oct-Dec 2010, Vol. 38 Issue 4, pp. 230-36.  In that article, Ron writes, “The expression man hu has puzzled interpreters of the Bible from the earliest periods of recorded biblical exegesis.” (p. 234.)

[11] The author’s conception of “knowledge” or “understanding” of this kind may have been somewhat similar to the kind of “knowledge” (Greek epistémé) that Plato would often depict Socrates as seeking, as something to be contrasted with mere “opinion” or “belief” (Greek doxa) founded on mere “perception.”

[12] This is quite conjectural, but perhaps the metaphorical “eating” of the manna was what was thought to transform “perception” into “knowledge” or “understanding.”  If so, it might relate to the “inner” significance of “eating” Jesus’s “flesh.”  See John 6:48-57.

[13] Theraphan L. Thongkum, “A View On Proto-Mjuenic (Yao),” The Mon-Khmer Studies Journal, vol. 22 (1993), pp. 163-230.

[14] When, some time after having made a copy of this text, I went to look for the URL of the message board forum page where I originally found this post, I was unable to find it.