Saraswati, is a Sanskrit fusion word of saras (सरस्) meaning "pooling water", but also sometimes translated as "speech"; and vati (वती) meaning "she who possesses". Originally associated with the river or rivers known as Saraswati, this combination, therefore, means "she who has ponds, lakes, and pooling water" or occasionally "she who possesses speech". It is also a Sanskrit composite word of surasa-vati (सुरस-वति) which means "one with plenty of water".
The word Saraswati appears both as a reference to a river and as a significant deity in the Rigveda. In initial passages, the word refers to the Sarasvati River and is mentioned as one among several northwestern Indian rivers such as the Drishadvati. Saraswati, then, connotes a river deity. In Book 2, the Rigveda describes Saraswati as the best of mothers, of rivers, of goddesses.
अम्बितमे नदीतमे देवितमे सरस्वति
— Rigveda 2.41.16
Best of mothers, the best of rivers, best of goddesses, Sarasvatī.
Saraswati is celebrated as a feminine deity with healing and purifying powers of abundant, flowing waters in Book 10 of the Rigveda, as follows:
अपो अस्मान मातरः शुन्धयन्तु घर्तेन नो घर्तप्वः पुनन्तु |
विश्वं हि रिप्रं परवहन्ति देविरुदिदाभ्यः शुचिरापूत एमि ||
— Rigveda 10.17
May the waters, the mothers, cleanse us,
may they who purify with butter, purify us with butter,
for these goddesses bear away defilement,
I come up out of them pure and cleansed.
— translated by John Muir
In Vedic literature, Saraswati acquires the same significance for early Indians (states John Muir) as that accredited to the river Ganges by their modern descendants. In hymns of Book 10 of Rigveda, she is already declared to be the "possessor of knowledge". Her importance grows in Vedas composed after Rigveda and in Brahmanas, and the word evolves in its meaning from "waters that purify", to "that which purifies", to "vach (speech) that purifies", to "knowledge that purifies", and ultimately into a spiritual concept of a goddess that embodies knowledge, arts, music, melody, muse, language, rhetoric, eloquence, creative work and anything whose flow purifies the essence and self of a person. In Upanishads and Dharma Sastras, Saraswati is invoked to remind the reader to meditate on virtue, virtuous emoluments, the meaning and the very essence of one's activity, one's action.
Saraswati is known by many names in ancient Hindu literature. Some examples of synonyms for Saraswati include Brahmani (power of Brahma), Brahmi (goddess of sciences), Bharadi (goddess of history), Vani and Vachi (both referring to the flow of music/song, melodious speech, eloquent speaking respectively), Varnesvari (goddess of letters), Kavijihvagravasini (one who dwells on the tongue of poets). Goddess Saraswati is also known as Vidyadatri (Goddess who provides knowledge), Veenavadini (Goddess who plays Veena, the musical instrument held by Goddess Saraswati), Pustakdharini (Goddess carrying book with herself), Veenapani (Goddess carrying veena in her hands), Hansavahini (Goddess who sits on swan) and Vagdevi (Goddess of speech).
In the Hindi language, her name is written Hindi: सरस्वती. In the Telugu, Sarasvati is also known as Chaduvula Thalli (చదువుల తల్లి) and Shārada (శారద). In Konkani, she is referred to as Shārada, Veenapani, Pustakadhārini, Vidyadāyini. In Kannada, variants of her name include Sharade, Sharadamba, Vāni, Veenapani in the famous Sringeri temple. In Tamil, she is also known as Kalaimagal (கலைமகள்), Kalaivāni (கலைவாணி), Vāni (வாணி) and Bharathi. She is also addressed as Sāradā (the one who offers sāra or the essence), Shāradā (the one who loves the autumn season), Veenā-pustaka-dhārini (the one holding books and a Veena), Vāgdevi, Vāgishvari, (both meaning "goddess of speech"), Vāni (speech), Varadhanāyaki (the one bestowing boons), Sāvitri (consort of Brahma), Gāyatri (mother of Vedas).
In India, she is locally spelled as Assamese language:সৰস্বতী,Saraswati, Bengali: সরস্বতী, Saraswati ?, Malayalam: സരസ്വതി, Saraswati ?, and Tamil: சரஸ்வதி, Sarasvatī ?.
In Odia as ସରସ୍ଵତୀ Saraswati.
Outside Nepal and India, she is known in Burmese as Thurathadi (သူရဿတီ, pronounced [θùja̰ðədì] or [θùɹa̰ðədì]) or Tipitaka Medaw (တိပိဋကမယ်တော်, pronounced [tḭpḭtəka̰ mɛ̀dɔ̀]), in Chinese as Biàncáitiān (辯才天), in Japanese as Benzaiten (弁才天/弁財天) and in Thai as Suratsawadi (สุรัสวดี) or Saratsawadi (สรัสวดี).