As astute followers of this column about etymology may have noticed, one thing that didn’t come down to readers of yesterday’s post about avatar was, surprisingly, the etymology of avatar. Let me make up for that now by noting that avatar began as Sanskrit avatarah, a combination of ava ‘down’ and the root of tarati ‘he crosses,’ so that the compound meant ‘a coming down, a descent.’
The second component of Sanskrit avatarah was itself a sort of avatar, having descended from the Indo-European root *ter∂- that meant ‘to cross over, pass through.’ In fact native English through is a descendant of the same root; so is Spanish tras ‘beyond, behind, after,’ which evolved from the Latin trans that meant ‘over, across, through.’
The Latin saying Sic transit gloria mundi means “Thus passes away the glory of the world.” That eventually came to apply to the mighty Roman Empire itself, which has long since passed away. The language of that empire, Latin, is no longer a living one, but trans survives as an element in many Spanish and English words. Some examples are transmitir/transmit, transnacional/transnational, transferir/transfer, and tránsito/transit. And of course there is transitorio/transitory, a single word that gets to the heart not only of the Latin saying but of all things glorious and mundane.
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman