The other day I met up with my Tibetan (A-mdo) friends over tons of mo mos, chunks of stewed beef (I guess it was not yak meat), and barrels of beer. Apologies to all those gods and humans who are vegetarians, vegans, teetotalers, and ascetics! Of course, you know that I am exaggerating a bit. We talked about all things under the sun (except for the current politics of the country). Particularly we talked about Tibetan language, literature, poetry, and plays. We also talked about feminism (and gender equality and inequality), racism, colonialism, orientalism, science, education, on so on. In connection with one of these issues, we talked about Tibetan words for “woman,” such skye dman (as opposed to skyes pa, which is understood not just in the sense of “man” but in the sense of “human being,” which would be like a red flag to an embittered feminist). In this connection, I mentioned how I once asked a young man from Kaḥ-thog why a woman is called a nag mo (lit. perhaps “a female black being,” or, so to speak, a “Schwarzin”). His answer—that is most likely to provoke utter contempt of feminists (a reaction that would actually be anachronistic)—was “because she blackens a human being” (mi nag nag bzo tsang). What an idiotic explanation! But do we have any better explanation? That young man was, by the way, totally illiterate and uneducated. We then discussed Tibetan words that would be politically incorrect by today’s standard of political correctness.
We then talked about the possible origin and etymology of words. But we did not consider words whose etymologies are explainable (rjes sgrub) and those whose etymologies are unexplainable or simply arbitrary (’dod rgyal). These would have been clear to all of us. rNam-rgyal then mentioned that actually some A-mdo scholars have been suggesting or speculating that the word nag mo (for “woman”) and pho rog = pho rogs (for “raven” or “crow”) have been erroneously interchanged by that primordial giver of names called the “primordial chief” (gdod ma’i mgon po) in Tibetan, which is not to be mistaken with the Ur-Buddha Samantabhadra, who is also called the Primordial Lord (gDod-ma’i-dgon-po). That is, there is no reason at all why a black “raven” or “crow” should be called a “mate of a male” or “companion of a male” (pho rog/s). There is equally no reason at all why a woman should be called a “black being” (nag mo). On the contrary a raven or crow is a perfect “black being” (nag mo) and a female human being is the best possible “companion of a male” (pho rog/s). I do not know what you guys out there think of this but I must admit I was charmed by this idea!
Postscript: Interestingly, dGe-’dun-chos-’phel has suggested that many Tibetan names of birds are onomatopoeic or onomatopoetic (i.e. so so’i skad gdangs la ltos nas btags pa) such as khwa, skya ka, skyung ka, pho rog, and ngang pa. See the dGe chos gsung ’bum (2013, vol. 2, p. 217).