February 28, 2015


I am writing this at the behest of Dan. I have been trained to think that as a philologist I can trust no one, particularly not myself. So when I see the word ngo so, my first reaction has been whether the orthography is correct. The Tshig mdzod chen mo and Dag yig gsar bsgrigs record the word with this spelling. But one cannot trust these either. By the way I hardly trust Goldstein’s translations either. Actually Dan’s “face-saving” seems much better not the least because it also conforms my instincts but instincts are by no means tshad ma. My speculation here presupposes that it is not a loan-word, at least not phonetically. Perhaps we can all agree that ngo poses no problem. It means “face.” The issue is so. Could it mean “teeth”? I doubt. Maybe so here is the same kind of so as in ’khyer so? I feel that it could have been ngo srung. This word with this orthography is attested. Also contextually and semantically, ngo so always seems to mean ngo srung. Dan’s interpretation too seems to support this reading. The only problem is that ngo sor lta ba may suggest that such an expression would not be possible if if we had srung instead. At any rate, if ngo so was once ngo srung, how can we explain the change? It is perhaps not so difficult to conceive that pronunciation similarity caused the confusion. Vowels u and are often confused by Tibetans. The meaning of ngo srung would be not really to “to save/preserve only one’s own face” but the face of others too. That is, not being able to say a flat and direct “no” to others. A direct rejection or denial would cause bring others and oneself into an awkward situation or cause of embarrassment. So one pays a pleasant lip-service and thereby perhaps saving faces of both oneself and others. But most importantly we may have to determine the meaning according to the given context.


  1. Dear Dorji, I just got more Fascicles of the "Wörterbuch der tibetsche Schriftsprache" from München, and I see there in 15th Fascicle, p. 38, an entry for NGO-SO, which is defined as "Verherrlichng, positiver Einfluß, Anerkennung" with at least six examples of sentences using it. That's all for now. Yours, D.

  2. Verherrlichng > Verherrlichung