• mahatma •
Pronunciation: mê-hæt-mê • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. A person venerated for wisdom and saintliness in India. 2. A person of great prestige in his or her field.
Notes: This is a title of respect applied to Mohandas Gandhi (1869-1948) in 1915 by poet Rabrindranath Tagore. It has since become a common English noun. We have only one rare derivation, mahatmaism, referring to the character of a mahatma.
In Play: Mahatma Gandhi, as Mohandas Gandhi was commonly called, led the peaceful battle to free India from British control. He played a key role in bringing down the entire British Empire. So today's Good Word is also used as an honorific epithet. However, it is a common noun: "Frank Lloyd Wright was a mahatma of American architecture."
Word History: Today's word comes from Sanskrit mahatman "great-souled", comprising maha "great" + atman, "soul, spirit, life", originally "breath". In Buddhism it refers to a person of great powers. Maha comes from Proto-Indo-European meg- "large, great" which also went into the making of maharaja "great king" and maharishi "great seer". It emerged in Latin as magnus "large, great" and Greek as megas "large, great". English now uses a rounded-off version of the latter for its prefix mega-. The Latin variant is present in many English borrowings: magnate, magnify, magnificent to mention just three. (Joakim Larsson of Sweden isn't quite a mahatma of words, but he is a regular contributor whom we should thank for suggesting today's Good Word.)