Here’s what the 1911 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica had to say about avatar: “a Sanskrit word meaning ‘descent,’ specially used in Hindu mythology (and so in English) to express the incarnation of a deity visiting the earth for any purpose. The ten Avatars of Vishnu are the most famous. The Hindus believe he has appeared (1) as a fish, (2) as a tortoise, (3) as a hog, (4) as a monster, half man half lion, to destroy the giant Iranian, (5) as a dwarf, (6) as Rama, (7) again as Rama for the purpose of killing the thousand-armed giant Cartasuciriargunan, (8) as Krishna, (9) as Buddha. They allege that the tenth Avatar has yet to occur and will be in the form of a white-winged horse (Kalki) who will destroy the earth.”

Two years later, Webster’s Dictionary gave a similar (but much briefer) first definition, then went on to summarize the way English had been using the word less literally: ‘incarnation; manifestation as an object of worship or admiration.’ From that came the sense that prevailed through most of the rest of the 20th century: ‘someone who embodies an idea or concept.’

But we are in the 21st century, and the ancient notion of embodying a person has reincarnated in what is now a cyberworld. By far the most common modern English meaning of avatar, and the only one that most people know, is ‘a graphic representation of a person, whether online or in a computer game.’

But what about Spanish? It adopted avatar from French and first used it in the original sense of ‘an incarnation of a deity,’ then more loosely as ‘a reincarnation, a transformation.’ Even more loosely, and often in the plural, Spanish avatar has meant ‘phases, changes, vicissitudes.’ But of course almost no English-language computer term fails to make its way into Spanish, so there, too, avatar has taken on the sense ‘a graphical representation of a computer user.’

And just as English-speaking computer users have begun shortening avatar to avi, so now have some Spanish speakers.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


1 Comment (+add yours?)

  1. Trackback: avatar as avatar « Spanish-English Word Connections

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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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