June 05, 2015


Old Tibetan texts including translated texts often contain words the meanings of which Tibetan scholars (even learned ones) no longer know. In such cases, multilingual scholars who read Sanskrit, Tibetan, Chinese, and the like, would certainly have a bigger advantage. It often happened in the past that certain Tibetan words which were completely unknown to me were crystal clear to my multilingual German professor. Modern Tibetans, while seeking to coin new words for new entities, may profit from those archaic or obsolete Tibetan words. In this way, Tibetans may be able to revive and reuse existing (but long forgotten) Tibetan words. But this would require one to get down to the nitty-gritty of philological work. This is by no means always easy. I may mention here a small example. Suppose we come across a word sku ska recorded in the Mahāvyutpatti (no. 7351). Some Tibetan scholars may know what it means. But when I first saw it, I had no idea what it means. Of course there always lurks the possibility that the word has been wrongly spelled to an extent that one longer recognises it. Indeed, Sasaki’s edition has the varia lectio: sku ka. But my problem persists. I still do not actually understand it. One may frantically look up dictionaries and lexicons. But I could not thus far trace it anywhere else. Fortunately for us, however, the Mahāvyutpatti has the Sanskrit and an alternative translation. The Sanskrit prahelika (as masculine in the Mahāvyutpatti but perhaps it should be feminine according to MW, s.v. prahelikā and also according to Mi-pham’s sKad gnyis shan sbyar), is said to be a riddle which is also confirmed by the alternative Tibetan translation lde’u or mde’u recorded in the Mahāvyutpatti. Mi-pham’s sKad gnyis shan sbyar—which, in this specific case, seems not to be based on the Mahāvyutpatti but perhaps on the bilingual Kāvyādarśa transmitted by Si-tu-paṇ-chen—has gab tshig. So although we do not have other sources that explain sku ska/ka, we can infer that it is a kind of a “riddle.” Two questions, however, still hang in the air: (a) Has the spelling been correctly transmitted? (b) What could have been its etymology? At present, I have no idea.


  1. Dear D, What an interesting puzzle to try and puzzle out... To follow the Mahavyutpatti exactly, it's defining the Sanskrit prahelika with two alternative Tibetan glosses: lde'u (riddle) and sku-ska (?). So it's likely that sku-ska is something similar but not exactly the same as lde'u, otherwise why use two Tibetan glosses if one could do the trick? Well, OK, they could be exact synonyms, but why bring such an obscure term into the definition? Then again, if I look through the Kanjur-Tanjur and the OTDO and don't come up with a single instance of usage, I start to worry. Maybe it's a fault of the Mahavyutpatti? Maybe something got lost in the transmission of the text. Maybe it was supposed to read sku-skal or the like? The Btsan-lha dictionary does have an entry for sku-ska: lde'u'am khed kyi ming ste / "brda yig reg gzig gsar bu'i nyer mkho" las / sku ska lde'u skan mna' tshig / ces gsungs pa ltar ro. I guess khed *is* just another word for riddle, sometimes spelled khegs. The glossary he quotes here is one by Chos-ldan-rgya-mtsho. I don't know who that is, do you? (Well, I see that TBRC lists two 18th century persons by this name.) Oh well, still puzzled, or maybe perplexed is the better word for it. When you're puzzled it means you haven't given up on finding out the solution. Cheers, D

  2. Dear D, I saw your post in the middle of the night and tried to post a reply via my iPhone but I could not log in and the text got lost. I shall try to reconstruct the lost text. Thank you for your, as usual, insightful comments. I have completely forgotten to consult bTsan-lha’s gSer gyi brda dkrol me long and also your dictionary which you began while you were still in Bloomington. Time and again, I have realised how good bTsan-lha’s work is. I particularly like the fact that he provides exact quotations from his sources. Thanks to your comments, I came a step forward and now know that prahelikā = lde’u/mde’u = gab tshig = sku ska/ka = khed/khegs (another obscure word). Except lde’u/mde’u, which we believe we know, the etymologies (if there are at all) of sku ska/ka and khed/khegs remain unknown. By the way, I have not known Chos-ldan-rgya-mtsho before. It is very humbling to know that there are infinite number of puzzles that wait to be solved. Thanks again, D.

  3. Dear D, Well, at least I think we can safely remove the mde'u spelling from serious consideration. I'm more familiar with it in medical contexts. It seems to be a diminutive of mda' (not mdo), meaning 'arrow', and therefore 'little arrow' but it's clear it means the arrowhead, since it is the thing that requires extraction. There is a possible confusion, too, with the spelling rde'u, diminutive of rdo, 'stone,' and therefore 'pebble,' or it may be that this is the correct spelling for the meaning arrowhead (or in more recent centuries 'bullet'). Ciao & tchuss! D.