Back in 2007 I posted about mana, but that was about an early Japanese writing system called mana or man’yōgana. This is about mana the Polynesian concept of supernatural force — and, as it turns out (heretofore unbeknownst to me), a common term for magic points in contemporary role-playing games. This is laid out in detail in an article by Alex Golub sent to me by bulbul, who was surprised from the other direction: “13 years of gaming and I had no idea” (about the Polynesian origins). In the section on the Polynesian word it links to this, which drew my attention to the Polynesian Lexicon Project Online, aka Pollex Online, which makes my day all on its own; since they say “If you use the POLLEX-Online database, please cite: Greenhill SJ & Clark R (2011). POLLEX-Online: The Polynesian Lexicon Project Online. Oceanic Linguistics, 50(2), 551-559,” I am hereby doing so. And if you’re curious about how the word ended up in gaming, here’s the crucial paragraph:
Mana has been floating around fantasy and gaming fandoms for some time, partially because of Eliade, but also because of Larry Niven. In 1969, Larry Niven published the short story “Not Long Before The End.” The story was set in the distant past, when the environment was suffused with mana. Wizards consumed mana by casting spells, slowly using it up. The result was our current, disenchanted world. Published four years after Frank Herbert’s Dune and the same year as the Santa Barbara oil spill, some people saw in Niven’s work an ecological message about nonrenewable resources. In fact, Niven’s inspiration was a book he had read in college: Peter Worsley’s The Trumpet Shall Sound. Worsley’s book described cargo cults in New Guinea, many of which drew on Austronesian visions of the distant past as a time of powerful ancestors whose knowledge and capacities had been imperfectly handed down to us in the present. The story was superbly told, frequently anthologized, and resulted in several spin-offs. As a result, word of mana spread.
But there’s lots of good stuff in there, and I recommend reading the whole thing. (I’m almost afraid to mention this, but in my Pocket Hawaiian Dictionary, the etymology given for mana is “PPN manga.” Nothing to do with this, honest!)