Gurus and other Teachers

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A reader expressed her disappointment when I left guru off my list of English words that end in u. I’ll endeavor to make up for the omission with this post about guru and other terms for teachers.

1. teacher
I’ll begin with the generic word teacher, an Old English word related to token. A token is something that serves to indicate a fact. “To teach” is to show in the sense of “to guide, to show the way.” To teach something is to convey knowledge or give instruction.

2. tutor
The Latin noun tutor derived from a Latin verb meaning “to watch or guard.” A tutor was a protector. In Roman law, a tutor was the guardian of a legally incapable person. The English word has been used in the sense of “custodian of property,” but its most familiar use is as “a person in charge of looking after or instructing a young person.” In modern American usage, a tutor is a paid or unpaid teacher who provides one-on-one instruction. Tutor is also used as a verb.

3. mentor
The word mentor is an eponym, a word derived from the name of a person. When Odysseus left for the Trojan War, he placed his son Telemachus in the care of a wise old friend named Mentor; the goddess Athena, disguised as Mentor, guides and counsels Telemachus. A mentor, therefore, is a person who guides and advises another–usually younger–person. In American usage, the word is often used to refer to an experienced person in a company who trains and counsels new employees. College students are assigned mentors to help them settle into academic life. Mentor is also used as a verb.

4. sage
A sage is a person of profound wisdom. The word derives from a Latin verb meaning “to be wise”; the verb’s present participle, sapiens, means wise. The noun sage is not much used in modern English, but the adjective sage is often seen, especially in the cliché “to offer sage advice.”

5. maestro
English has its own version of this word: master. A master or maestro is one who has achieved eminence in a skill or a profession. Taken from the Italian, maestro [MY-stro] usually refers to an eminent musician.

Note: Several words borrowed by English to denote a wise person–including guru– derive from Sanskrit.

6. pundit
This word for “a person who makes authoritative comments or judgments” is from a Sanskrit word meaning learned or skilled. In modern India, the word survives as pandit: “a learned person; a Hindu priest or teacher.” In modern American speech, the word pundit is usually applied to people who comment on current affairs or specialized fields.

7. guru
Originally an adjective meaning “weighty, grave, dignified,” Sanskrit guru came to mean a Hindu spiritual teacher or head of a religious sect. In modern American usage, the word is used loosely to refer to just about anyone who knows a lot about some subject.

8. swami
The Hindu word swami translates as “master, lord, prince” and is used by Hindus as a term of respectful address. Swami can also refer to a Hindu temple, idol, or religious teacher.

9. sadhu
If you’ve read Kim by Rudyard Kipling, you’ve seen this word spelled saddhu. A sadhu is an Indian holy man or saint. The word comes from a Sanskrit adjective meaning “effective, correct, good.”

10. rishi
A rishi is a holy seer, specifically one of the holy poets or sages credited with the composition of the Veda writings.

11. maharishi
A maharishi is a “great rishi,” a Hindu sage or holy man. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi achieved worldwide fame as guru to the Beatles, 

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5 thoughts on “Gurus and other Teachers”

  1. Kumu – Hawaiian word for teacher. A kumu hula is the master teacher of a hula halau (a hula dancing group). A kumu is a person who has dedicated their lives to learning and mastering any craft or skill.

  2. I was wondering why you missed to mention “mahatma” along with all these words that come from India.

  3. John,
    I think of “mahatma” as a word for “saint,” more than “teacher.” Besides, I don’t try to include every possible aspect of the topics I write about. For example, I didn’t include acharya, paramahamsa, asan, or bodhaka either.

    It’s always fun when a reader brings up another detail that adds to the post.

  4. Maeve,
    Of course, no one expects you to include everything that can always make an article exhaustive. I was joking about that. I like that word. That’s all! Anyway, I found also this definition of “mahatma”:
    (In South Asia) a revered person regarded with love and respect; a holy person or sage.
    Regards, John.

  5. My favorite: sensei
    Used in the US to refer to a teacher of Japanese martial arts, it comes, I’m told, from the Japanese for “born before,” as in, someone who was born before you and therefore has experience and should be listened to!

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