Why "mfn" rather than "adjective"?

In Cone’s Dictionary of Pali, she adopts the convention of using the abbreviation “mfn.” (i.e. masculine, feminine, neuter) rather than “adjective”. I can’t see an explanation for this. In the introduction, she simply says “i.e. adjective”, so it seems there is no difference in meaning implied.

I’m wondering why this is? It seems obscure. Surely it is more meaningful to simply say it is an adjective? I’m wondering whether we should return to “adjective” for our NCPED.

I notice that the same convention is used elsewhere in Sanskrit studies:



One usage that Cone has is something like “mf(~ī)n”, where you can specify that the feminine form has a different ending. So that is useful. But it does get a bit messy; “adj. (f. ~ī)” is more verbose, but perhaps clearer.


Is it possible that this abbreviation is preferably used to indicate that a certain type of adjectives describe nouns in any gender and not in one in particular?

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Well, that’s the case with all adjectives. In Pali, adjectives are declined in accord with the noun that they qualify.

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Just like in German, French, and other languages too; languages that are more gendered than English.

I was actually already wondering the same thing; but I thought maybe this is an English language convention. But as you are asking the same, it seems rather not.

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It is often hard to rigorously divide Pali into adjectives and nouns, many words being used in both categories. By saying mfn, you are just saying that the words are, at the very least, sometimes used as adjectives, but they may also be used as nouns.


+1 It seems she’s reminding us that these are technically not adjectives.

But this is a level of pedantry appropriate to Cone’s tome which may not be appropriate for a “Concise” dictionary. What do you think, Ajahn? :pray:

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Yeah, maybe it would be best to note if a word is used both as a noun and an adjective. I notice this is what Cone does. Or if this is too hard to implement, one could go with majority use. I am really happy to leave the headaches for Bhante Sujato! Thanks, Bhante, for your sacrifice.


Partly I’m thinking about what presents to a user of our dictionaries. We give the basic grammatical information. I’d prefer to give the info in full, eg. “masculine” rather than “m.”. So “adjective” would make sense, but “masculine/feminine/neuter” is a bit much, perhaps.


Ms. K. Wendland of The Pali Text Society replied as follows to why mfn is used in stead of adjective (email): “The abbreviation ‘mfn’ is conventionally used for adjectives in dictionaries of this kind; it appears in Monier-Williams’s Sanskrit dictionary as well. As for the exact reasons I’m afraid we have no information.” (It’s also used in Russian dictionaries & I wanted to know why it is in Pali d. too. )


Hey, that’s an awesome bit of information! Always go straight to the source.


I’d prefer to keep mfn, for the reasons given by Bhante @Brahmali. Like Latin or pre-20th C English grammar, Pali has 2 classes of nouns. They are the substantive nouns (nāmanāma / guṇipada) and adjectival nouns (guṇanāma).

Retaining mfn does furnish extra data to the reader that the word can be both an adjective and a substantive.

The CPD index for “mfn” suggests that it treats it as a noun “used as an adjective”, with a separate entry for “adjective”.