The Empire Strikes the English language

The delightful but vaguely problematic glossary of colonial language that is Hobson-Jobson

“Words of Indian origin have been insinuating themselves into English ever since the end of the reign of Elizabeth and the beginning of that of King James,” begins the lexicon Hobson Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, And Of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive, “when such terms as calico, chintz, and gingham had already effected a lodgement in English warehouses and shops, and were lying in wait for entrance into English literature. Such outlandish guests grew more frequent 120 years ago, when, soon after the middle of last century, the numbers of Englishmen in Indian services, civil and military, expanded with the great acquisition of dominion then made by the Company; and we meet them in vastly great abundance now.”

It was suggested that the book be called “A Book, by a Chap”. However, Colonel Yule and Mr. Burnell, whose idea the lexicon had been, went for Hobson-Jobson. A product of the Victorian enthusiasm for lexigraphy, map-making for the geographic origination of language and words, Hobson-Jobson was first put together in 1886. It almost predates the epic ten-volume New English Dictionary that was published between 1884 and 1928, and is now known as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). Henry Yule was a retired Bengal Engineer turned historic geographer and scholar, who settled in Palermo, Sicily. Arthur Coke Burnell, who unfortunately did not live to see the published book, was a judge in the Madras Civil Service and one of the foremost Sanskrit experts of that time. The two met in the India Office Library in London in 1872 and discovered they shared a common interest in the languages of the colonies.

There is a 1903 edition, edited by William Crooke (published by John Murray), on open-shelving which I managed to get my hands on at the library of the School of Oriental and African Studies, London. The latest edition, a volume of much reduced circumstances published by Oxford University Press, describes itself in more modest terms as “The Definitive Glossary of British India”. It is edited by national treasure Kate Teltscher.

Yule explains in the preface that the term Hobsob-Jobson is a “typical and delightful example of that class of Anglo-Indian argot which consists of Oriental words highly assimilated, perhaps by vulgar lips, to the English vernacular.” Like Herge’s twins Thomson and Thompson is intended to be a “veiled intimation of dual authorship.” But what does the dictionary itself have to say on the subject?

HOBSON-JOBSON, s. A native festal excitement; a tamasha (see TUMASHA); but especially the Moharram ceremonies. This phrase may be taken as a typical one of the most highly assimilated class of Anglo-Indian argot, and we have ventured to borrow from it a concise alternative title for this Glossary. It is peculiar to the British soldier and his surroundings, with whom it probably originated, and with whom it is by no means obsolete, as we once supposed. My friend Major John Trotter tells me that he has repeatedly heart it used by British soldiers in the Punjab; and has heart it also from a regimental Moonshee. It is in fact an Anglo-Saxon version of the wailings of the Mahommedans as they beat their breasts in the procession of the Moharram — “Ya Hasan! Ya Hosain!…

Trust the Victorians to write a scholarly annotated dictionary recording silly mis-hearings in foreign lands. The entries start out conventionally. There is a headword in capital letters, followed the phonetic abbreviation, and a definition. After that anything can happen. As Teltscher puts it: “It could be a surprising etymology, a learned account of the evolution of a term, a commentary on the thing itself, a political aside or nostalgic reminiscence.” It’s amazing fun. Teltscher highlights the definition of MOSQUITO as an example which includes a remarkable anecdote of a Scotswoman, who was so terrorised by stories of terrifying creatures called mosquitoes, saw an elephant and exclaimed: “Will yon be what’s called a musquaeetae?”

Salman Rushdie in a precis on Hobson Jobson in Imaginary Lands: Essays and Criticism 1981–1991 crafts this delicious paragraph from the lexicon:

“The British Empire, many pundits now agree, descended like a juggernaut upon the barbicans of the East, in search of loot. These moguls of the raj went in palanquins, smoking cheroots, to sip toddy or sherbet on the verandahs of the gymkhana club, while the memsahibs fretted about like thugs in bandannas and dungarees who roamed the night like pariahs, plotting ghoulish deeds.”

The word tank notes Rushdie has Gujarati and Marathi origins, cash is from Sanskrit karsha, a jam was a Gujarati chef. Wickedly, Rushdie notes that there is “no kaffir, no gully, not even a wog.” He speculates about all the new English words the Indians have created like “incharge”. That, of course, could be a whole new ten-volume lexicon that will need to include words and phrases like prepone and revert to my back end.

Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis trilogy seems to be entirely crafted from Hobson-Jobson. The following paragraph is a typical example:

“Being unaccustomed to the ways of the house, she had not allowed for the others who were present at every meal: the turbaned bearers who stood behind each chair; the masalchie with the sauceboat; the chobdar whose job it was to ladle soup from sideboard tureen; the three or four young chuckeroos who always followed at the feet of the more senior retainers. And nor were these the only servants present that night: curiosity about the newly arrived missy-mem had spread to the bobachee-connah and many of the kitchen staff were lurking in the anterior vestibule, where the punkah-wallahs sat, pulling overhead fans by means of ropes attached to their toes: among them were the curry consumah, the callefa who roasted the kabobs and the bobachees who were responsible for the stews and the joints of beef. The indoors servants had been contrived to smuggle in a few whose place was strictly out-of-doors — malis from the garden, syces and julibdars from the stables, durwauns from the gatehouse, and even some beasties from the gang that kept the house supplied with water.”

This goes on for three volumes and more. Ghosh has even compiled his own version of Hobson-Jobson, as a chrestomathy written from the perspective of a character in his novel, Neel.

In no way was this evolution of a hybridised Anglo-Indian English a two-participant thing like a Wimbledon singles lawn tennis match. It was more akin to the town-level kind of brawls that eventually became the standardised as the games of rugby and football. English itself is a mix of French and Anglo-Saxon. My official Life in the UK exam guide explains:

After the Norman Conquest, the king and his nobleman had spoken Norman French and the peasants had continued to speak Anglo-Saxon. Gradually these two languages combined to become one English language. Some words in modern English — for example, ‘park’ and ‘beauty’ — are based on Norman French words. Others — for example, ‘apple’, ‘cow’ and ‘summer’ — are based on Anglo-Saxon words. In modern English there are often two words with very similar meanings, one from French and one from Anglo-Saxon. ‘Demand’ (French) and ‘ask’ (Anglo-Saxon) are examples.

Similarly, Hindustani (which after Partition is increasingly splitting into Pakistani Urdu and Indian Hindi) owes much to Sanskrit, Persian and Dravidian languages, such as Tamil, Telegu and Malayalam, with influences from Cantonese, Mandarin, and Malay. As Yule puts it:

“With the gradual assumption of administration after the middle of last century, we adopted into partial colloquial use an immense number of terms, very many of them Persian or Arabic, belonging to the technicalities of revenue and other departments, and largely borrowed from our Mohammedan predecessors.”

From Malay, there are words like “paddy, godown, compound, bankshall, rattan, durian, a-much, prow, and cadjan, junk, and crease.” From Chinese, mostly names of fruits or imported products like loquot, leechee, chow-chow, cumquat, ginseng and jinrickshaw. Weirdly, many words thought to be Chinese, and in use in Chinese ports — such as mandarin, junk, chop, pagoda are loan words from Malay and India, that “precipitated in Chinese waters during the flux and reflux of foreign trade”.

There are words such as buggy or pish-pash which had fallen out of use in England but which Englishmen to their surprise found being in continued use in India. Words thought to be from France, like boutique, are actually Portuguese. And even more strange, a view attributed to a linguist of that time John Crawford, are words like mangrove which owe their origins to multiple sources, the Malay to the Spanish, French, Portuguese and English: a simultaneous usage that cropped up to describe the mangled and tangled trees that dot the coastal forests being discovered around the world by maritime explorers .

Yule assures his readers that: “Nearly all borrowed words refer to material facts, or to peculiar customs and stages of society, and though few of them furnish allusions to the penny-a-liner, they do not represent new ideas.” But the new worlds made possible through Empire needed a new language and terminology. If the English did not need these words to describe their ideas, why did they import so many — from Urdu, Tamil, Chinese, and Malay — into their own?

Laura Otis, in an essay on Sherlock Holmes, argues that Doyle’s character is :“a detective-hero who acts both like a masterful bacteriologist and an imperial immune system”. The biggest threat to Empire was infection. Hobson-Jobson, like Holmes, are cultural creations seeking to assuage concerns that their country was still pure. Yet, the larger question remained, how English was the English language? And, if the language itself had succumbed to infections and infiltration abroad, in what state would that leave the English nation?

It could not have escaped the notice of widely travelled men of the intelligence of Colonel Yule and Mr. Burnell that what Hobson-Jobson really illustrated was that neither England and nor India were ever really homogenous geographies of people and languages.

And yet, they made this remarkable, idiosyncratic book, and people loved it.

I write about culture, books, and graphic design. Life goals include a graphic novel, and a hand stand.

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