Water words

The man of wisdom delights in water, the man of humanity delights in mountains. The man of wisdom is active, the man of humanity enjoys long life. (Confucius)

The active and long-lived person has fun with both. Here are a few Nepali water words, some straightforward and some esoteric, that please and amaze me. (We’ll do mountain words another time.)

In Nepali, ‘water’ (the noun) is pāni (paani) with a long (or double) vowel (not to be confused with the adverb/conjunction pani, with a short vowel, meaning ‘also’).

I’ve always delighted in water words and the promises embedded in geographical place names like Chiso Pāni (cold water spring), Tāto Pāni (hot spring), Kālo Pāni (black water; and another name for Lord Shiva), Mul Pāni (main or source water), Khāni Pāni (drinking water) and Pāni Pokhari (a small pond or puddle).

Among the creatures in Nature, there is the pāni-cari (a kind of bird) and pāni-jantu (an aquatic critter), both of which include the pāni-hããs (duck or goose). For plants, consider pāni-laharā (a shrub or vine with edible red berries) and pāni-sāj (a kind of tree with a light wood). There’s also the repulsive pāni-juga (water leech) and pānisaro (an irritating but minor skin rash reminiscent of measles).

Even the weather gets into the act as in pāni paryo (‘it’s raining’) and two melodic and somewhat onomatopoeic phrases for ‘drizzle’: rimi-jhimi pāni and phis-phisé pāni (hear it falling?). Hāwā-pāni (literally ‘air-water’) is generic for weather or climate, while ghām-pāni implies ‘rain falling while the sun is shining’ (then watch for indreni, the rainbow).

More obscure and esoteric is pāni bārā-bār hunu, meaning ‘to be at daggers drawn’ or to confront a mutual obstruction or boycott. And to be outcaste or defiled is pāni banda (‘barred from water’), which has a lot to do with ritual pollution (extremely water sensitive). Similarly, when a Nepali woman is menstruating she is believed to be ritually impure and goes into temporary seclusion called pāni barnu, literally ‘barred from water’ (kept in isolation). At that time in most households she does not cook nor touch food to be consumed by others, especially rice, which is cooked in water.

Here’s an easy one. If you glug water it’s called pāni kalkali khānu, where kalkali implies the glugging or gurgling sound and khānu means ‘to eat’ (colloquially ‘to drink’). I dare you to try glugging sorā-pāni (soda water, the fizzy drink).

And, while learning the Nepali alphabet, remember the school child’s mnemonic for the letter P –Pāni-Pokhari; just as ‘B is for boy’ and ‘C is for cat’ in English.

During religious rituals involving animal sacrifice the designated creature – a sheep, goat, or chicken, for example – must shiver (signifying possession by a spirit) before being cut. If it doesn’t shiver (the spirit doesn’t come), the priest induces it by sprinkling the animal with water: pāni parnu.

Another esoteric expression, one that you are unlikely to encounter unless you are in the police or prison business, is kālā pāni pathaunu, ‘to transport (as a convict)’. It’s derived from kālo for black, dark, swarthy, dark-complexioned, or black skinned, to which pāni and pathaunu (to send) are added. The deeper, more precise meaning is ‘to transport across a dark water’, which means being sent to prison. You’ll want to avoid falling into that dark void, shamefully and uncomfortably trussed up with wrist and ankle bracelets and in chains.

In the end, pāni everywhere has universal attributes. “All water,” writes the novelist Toni Morrison, “has a perfect memory and is forever trying to get back to where it was.” On a loftier plain, the Maitri Upanishad tells us that “Even as water becomes one with water, fire with fire, and air with air, so the mind becomes one with the Infinite mind and thus attains freedom.” And, to end with a watery smile, consider poor Mitch Hedberg (a comedian) who laments: “My fake plants died because I did not pretend to water them.”

The various water-word defi nitions were checked against Ralph Lilley Turner’s A Comparative and Etymological Dictionary of the Nepali Language, a classic Nepali-English dictionary fi rst published in 1931, now available online at http://dsal.uchicago.

edu/dictionaries, or in a hard-cover reprint edition. Don Messerschmidt can be contacted at don. editor@gmail.com. If you have suggestions for mountain-words and phrases (for a future essay), please send them along.