August 24, 2012


Several years ago (i.e. precisely on August 24, 2012), I published a small note on the etymology of the Tibetan word ga’u, mainly based on questions raised by Dan Martin. The basic question then was that the Tibetan word ga’u appears to be a diminutive form of ga. But what could be the meaning of ga? Dan Martin then made some suggestions to which we shall return later. I am now motivated to return to the topic. Just the other day (i.e. January 27, 2019), I received an email from Ms. Briana Foley, a graduate student at Vanderbilt University in the Department of Religious Studies working with Professor Nancy Lin. She is writing her Master’s thesis on the Tibetan ga’u and is “deeply interested in the mythological and literary contexts in which ga’u are manifest.” She came across a short post from 2012 on my blog concerning the etymology of the word. She wanted to know if I made any further discovery concerning ga’u.

Dan Martin and I have not pursued further speculations regarding the etymology of ga’u and we did not make any further discoveries. But I may recapitulate some of the speculations made by Dan Martin thus far and add some points. First, we shall have to be sure that ga’u is indeed a diminutive word. The fact that the thing itself, which is the referent of the word ga’u, is actually a “little thing,” suggests that the form is indeed diminutive. Second, the word ga’u seems rather old. Dan Martin already pointed out then that especially the fifteenth chapter of Haarh 1969 (i.e. Erick Haarh, The Yar-luṅ Dynasty: A study with particular regard to the contribution by myths and legends to the history of Ancient Tibet and the origin and nature of its kings. Copenhagen: G.E.C. Gad’s Forlag, 1969) refers several times to the word ga’u occurring in the descriptions of imperial burials. I looked up for the word ga’u in the Old Tibetan Documents Online (OTDO) but the search reveals only two hits and neither of the two instances seems to refer to the ga’u of out context. Third, we shall not dwell much upon how we should translate the word into English. There seem to exist several translations. Dan Martin has already referred to Haarh’s translation of it simply as “box.” But let me reproduce what Jäschke states in his dictionary, namely, “a chest, box … ; a little box or case; when containing amulets, it is worn suspended by a string round the neck” (Jäschke 1881: s.v. ga’u). Fourth, Dan Martin also pointed out to what may be called Tibetan “cosmogonic etiology” according to which the sky and earth need to be separated, and they are compared to a ga’u. He also pointed that that Cosmas Indicopleuthes—the first Mediterranean to give a description of g.yag and who traveled as far as Śrī-Laṅkā—was the Greek-speaking Alexandrian who believed the world was a box, so to speak, a ga’u.

Let us now know turn to the speculative etymology of ga’u. First, one speculation by Dan Martin was that ga’u may be some kind of reduced-down form of sgam chung, a small box, or sgam bu (such a term seems to be attested in the sense of sgrom bu), which was then reduced to gam bu and then to ga bu. Note that bTsan-lha’s brDa dkrol gser gyi me long (s.v. ga bu) has ga bu as an equivalent of ga’u. Dan Martin has found one instance of the usage (Zhi-byed Coll. II 482.5): nang rtsi phyi ru gsal ba shel gyi ga bu lta bu. It is like a crystal ga bu that shows the inner essence on the outside. Inasmuch as both ’u and bu are diminutive particles, the proximity (or perhaps even the semantic identity) of ga’u and ga bu is perhaps all too obvious. But the speculation that ga goes back to sgam is less convincing and appears to be less plausible. But then what could have been the meaning of ga?

This brings us to the second speculation that I propose. To be sure, I am not even convinced of myself. But for the want for a better suggestion, I decided to make this speculation. Could it be that ga in our word ga’u has something to do with gan as in gan bub (brDa dkrol gser gyi me longs.v.) and gan rkyan/kyal. I think the meaning and usage of gan rkyal/kyal hardly require any explanation. It simply means “supine.” Consider, for example, the phrase lus gan rkyal du nyal ba  (“body lying with face upwards”). But the interesting thing is that the brDa dkrol gser gyi me longs.v.) explains gan bub as a compound (i.e. dvaṃdva compound) comprising of two opposite members, namely, gan rkyal (“supine”) and kha bub (“prone”). Despite the fact that gan rkyal is contrasted with kha bub, I feel that the syllable gan is either actually synonymous with kha or is derived from gyen. This seems to be supported by the brDa dkrol gser gyi me long which explains gan pa as kha gyen du bstan pa (“facing upwards”). If we take gan to mean kha, then we can think of explaining the compound gan bub as “kha gyen du bstan pa (“supine”) and kha thur du bstan pa (“prone”). In other words, ga’u is a gan bub, that is, “a locket, the upper part of which lies ‘prone’ and the lower part of which lies ‘supine’). Another possibility is that gan bub is traced back to gyen bub (“supine–prone”) and this would precisely describe a Tibetan locket called ga’u. The simplification of gan bub to ga bu may have occurred on account of phonetic or phonological simplification. The step from ga bu to ga ’u seems to be rather easier to explain.


  1. Dear D,

    Good morning!

    Actually, I found that the Btsan-lha dictionary has ga-bu as an equivalent of ga'u. But I've made a note on only one instance of usage: nang rtsi phyi ru gsal ba shel gyi ga bu lta bu. Zhi-byed Coll. II 482.5. It is like a crystal ga-bu that shows the inner essence on the outside.

    I thought it might make sense to be a diminutive of gan, which is to say a reduction of a hypothetical *gan-bu. Then it would mean a little treasury. But then why would the nasal disappear? That wouldn't make sense, would it? Nasals don't just up and walk out on us when we need them.

    Cosmas Indicopleuthes, the first Mediterranean to give a description of the yak, was the Greek-speaking Alexandrian who believed the world was a box. He traveled as far as Sri Lanka, but most of his book is filled with his cosmological arguments. He was totally unable to think outside the box, so to speak, which makes him an interesting case.

    I've found via the index that Haarh's book (The Yar-lun Dynasty, especially chap. 15) has lots of instances of the word ga'u in descriptions of imperial burials.


  2. Dear D,

    Maybe it's some kind of reduced-down form of sgam-chung, a small box or something like that. I don't know of instances of [s]gam-bu to mean small box, do you? I give up. Are there some more words to etymologise, or did you think of all of them already? Does rnga-mong mean a Mongol drum?