Religious and secular cultures come together in the increasing use of namaste (pronounced \NAH-muh-stay\) in English: the term is associated with both Hinduism and yoga. The word comes from Sanskrit and literally means “bowing to you” or “I bow to you,” and is used as a greeting. Sanskrit is the ancient and classical literary language of Hinduism which today serves as a learned language and lingua franca among scholars. Other well-known borrowings from Sanskrit in English include karma and nirvana.
The Sanskrit phrase namaste is formed from namaḥ, meaning “bow, obeisance, adoration,” and the enclitic pronoun te, meaning “to you.” The noun namaḥ, in turn, is a derivative of the verb namati, which means “(she or he) bends, bows.”
For such an old word, it came to English fairly recently. It had been transliterated as na-mas-tay, namasthe and namaste until the latter became standard in the mid-20th century. Its initial use for a broad American readership, unsurprisingly, was associated with stories about the newly independent India and its leader.
Our files show that a related word, namaskar, was considered for entry during work on the revision of our Unabridged Dictionary in the 1950s.
But Namaskar didn’t stick in English, and instead today there is much evidence for the two-word phrases namaste pose, namaste gesture, and namaste posture. The Oxford English Dictionary also records namaste used as a verb, meaning “to give a namaste (to).”
A related word, namazlik, meaning “prayer rug,” was entered in Merriam-Webster’s 1934 Unabridged edition, Webster’s Second. It comes from the Turkish word namaz meaning “worship ritual, prayer” and goes back to Middle Persian and Avestan (the oldest Iranian language) to nǝmahya- (“honour, pay homage to”), a derivative of nǝm- (“bend”), which is exactly cognate with Sanskrit namati, thereby connecting the ancient gesture and the ancient tradition of prayer rugs through the ancient roots of distantly related languages.