Why the Name Svaha?

Why the name Svaha?

Svaha = “(SVA-ha) The time between when you see the lightning and when you hear the thunder” - (Native American, tribe unknown)

… or so the story goes. Once upon a yesteryear there was a space on the 2nd floor of the Union building on the campus of Antioch College named ‘Svaha’ and campus rumor said that name meant the above definition and was a ‘Swahili’ word. This space had been created and so named that in the late 60’s or early 70’s, and it was even a campus publication and information office at one time (where they could get you the answer faster than lightning or something like that).

So when we formed Svaha and were looking for a name this one seemed particularly neat and unique so we registered the domain svaha.com and started on our merry geeky way (in retrospect we probably could have registered any number or easier to say, spell and remember names, and sold them for ridiculous amounts 5 years later and retired, but oh well).

That’s the short answer. Do you really want to read more about our quest to find the definition of this word? Ok then.. here’s the ‘more than you ever wanted to know’ version:

Chance had it that in the mid-nineties Antioch College hired a very cool philosophy and african studies professor, Dr. Dismas Masolo, who spoke some Swahili and he verified for us that it was indeed … NOT a Swahili word. Hmmm. Web searches and other greps for this turned up little information. We even searched the Antioch College archives and found all the old Antioch ‘Svaha’ publications, after all they must have given the source where they got the word. No luck. We even found out via other faculty and alumni the name of the person who ostensibly named the space/paper and tried to contact him with no success. We gave up, it must just be an Antioch word/myth. Oh well.

Then one day a friend tossed a paperback at me. SVAHA by Charles De Lint. On the cover was a native american with lightning flashing across the sky and it said “Between Thunder and Lightning — Comes A New Breed Of Warrior …”. Wait, this matches our definition! Does he cite a source for the word in his book? I thumbed through it madly, our search was almost over!

Turns out… not really, he just said “Svaha is Amerindian and means “the time between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder; a waiting for promises to be fulfilled”.“. Amerindian? Huh? I sat down and read the book, which I actually quite enjoyed at the time, but Amerindian the term he uses for all the merged Native American tribes in the future. He never cites a specific language or tribe for the word. Sigh.

So we did what all good geeks too.. we searched the web for this author, found his e-mail and dropped him a note saying ‘Where’d you get that word? (and please don’t say a space at Antioch College).’

    Date: Sat, 7 Sep 1996 23:53:51 -0400
    To: mbaya@college.antioch.edu
    From: Charles de Lint
    Subject: Re: svaha definition
    Hi Matthew,
    >So.. if you can spare a moment, if you can let me know what language its
    >from and its official definition, I would be very very happy. If you
    >don’t know all this I am curious how you learned of the word and that
    >may help me in tracking it down.
    It’s definitely a Native American word, and the meaning I gave in the book is the correct meaning. Unfortunately, I did the research for and wrote that book so long ago now, I can’t remember the exact source. It might have been from an interview I did for the book, it might have been from one of the many reference books I used, it might have been something I picked up along the way, stuck in a notebook and pulled out when it felt right for that book. I pretty sure it’s not from any of the Algonquin language groups. But since I never attended Antioch, I didn’t get it from there. I’m not at home as I write this. When I do get back, I’ll have a look through some of the notes I have for the novel, but can’t guarantee I’ll find anything. Glad you liked the book and sorry I couldn’t be of more help. cheers Charles de Lint

… and then a few days later;

    Date: Fri, 13 Sep 1996 15:58:48 -0400
    To: mbaya@college.antioch.edu
    From: Charles de Lint
    Subject: Re: svaha definition
    Hi Matthew, Got home and dug around in my files, but I can’t find the source for svaha anymore–most of my notes on the book are long gone. Sorry about that. cheers Charles de Lint

“notes on the book are long gone”? Ugh. Back to square one, or real close to it but at least we have a place to look right? It’s …er… some Native American language, and we’re “pretty sure it’s not from any of the Algonguin language groups”

As the web grew so did search engines and we started seeing the word pop up in other places. For example, in the Wikipedia definition of Svaha it is listed as a minor Hindu godess, or a component in Buddhist mantras used roughly equivalent to the word amen in Christian prayers. More recently I found the definition below from a website of a musician, Arun Luthra, who named his Jazz Quarter & CD Svaha.

In the beginning, Prajapati [the creator] existed alone…. He desired an offering made in himself…. [H]e obtained [an] offering [and]…. His own greatness said to him, ‘Offer it.’ Prajapati realized that his own [sva] greatness had spoken [aha] to him. And so he said, ‘Svaha’ as he offered it. Therefore one says ‘Svaha’ as an offering is made.

- from a Hindu creation myth in the Brahmanas (Hindu Scripture)

Ok, not what we were looking for but not bad.

We also came across someone who registered Svaha.Net before we did, though it turns out she just liked the Charles de Lint book, man that guy is every where :). Over time I guess spammers have caused her to remove her ‘blog’ and basically abandon the domain. We’ve repeatedly offered to buy it off her but no luck to date though she says she’ll keep us in mind.

On a more disturbing association there is apparently a Russian definition of Svaha “In the age old tradition of the Russian Svaha, or matchmaker, we are very pleased to introduce you to some of the nicest and most beautiful women of the Saratov Region of Russia.”

More recent searches have turned up a possible link to the definition we are looking for from the Ojibway (aka Chippewas) but none of these were definitive.

Another site says it’s a Navaho word “svaha [attrib. to Dineh (Navajo); provenance unverified] “The time between when you see the lightning and when you hear the thunder.” Useful to describe those svaha moments when you know exactly what will happen in the next few seconds but have no way to change it. It’s the feeling you have when you’re at a very fancy dinner party with heirloom wineglasses on the table and you turn and feel your elbow nudge something…”

Native-languages.org even claims the word Svaha is NOT a native american word.” If this saves even one more poor child from being named “Svaha” because his parents read on an Internet list that it was a “Native American” name, I have done a good deed today.” and “Believe me, you haven’t seen disappointed until you’ve had to break the news to junior-high-school-age Katet and Svaha that their names come not from Native American tribal tradition but from books written by Stephen King and Charles de Lint. “.

On another page on that same site they say “SVAHA: Baby name books claim this name means “the time between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder” in some unspecified American Indian language. In fact, it is the name of a science fiction book by Charles de Lint about Native Americans in an alternate universe, where it has this fanciful meaning. It does not come from a real Native American language.

There’s even a Svaha LARP, but again, Charles de Lint is the source (though to their credit they e-mailed us asking for a more verifiable definition)

Last year we even tried to pay any of the experts at Google Answers to get us a verifiable source with a post with a $25 bounty. No luck. (slackers ;) )

Other recent web references to the ‘lightning and thunder’ Svaha reference:

  • Urban Dictionary
  • Grant McCracken’s Blog - He learned it from Antioch in the early 70’s. The circular reference continues.
  • Ishaia’s Svaha - Yet another Charles De Lint inspired reference.
  • Svaha Concepts - Life coach. I e-mailed her asking where she learned the word.
  • Ladies Rings by Thomas H. Gilbert Gold Jewelry Design - “From the ancient pottery of the Anasazi - A lightning bolt flashes across the ancient sky leaving in its wake the crackle of energy - the moment of “Svaha”…. and, the memory of its strength and elemental force. This striking motif is shaped into 14K gold jewelry - signature pieces for the man who likes his taste simply and eloquently stated…”. I’ve e-mailed him in the past asking where he got the word, no response.
  • Jason Rothstein’s Blog - Another Antioch College source.

Can you help? Drop us a line, we’ll send you a box of random fun goodies if you get us a ‘real definition’ that we can cite.

Last Updated: April 18, 2006 by Matthew Baya


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