Book review: Hobson-Jobson: The Definitive Glossary of British India Henry Yule & AC Burnell, edited by Kate Teltscher

A mutual trade in vocabulary took place during the British Raj, this book illustrates

Andrew Robinson
Monday 12 August 2013 16:29

Britain traded with India, through the East India Company, for two and a half centuries; ruled India directly for almost two centuries until 1947; and gave contemporary India what is in effect its national language. So it is not surprising that many words in current British use have Indian origins, for example: bungalow, cash, chintz, curry, kedgeree, loot, punch (the drink), pariah, pundit, pyjamas, shampoo and thug. Some other Indian-origin words, such as box-wallah, nabob, pukka, puttee, sahib and topee are still widely understood in Britain.

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Hobson-Jobson, the classic dictionary-cum-encyclopedia of such words, was first published by John Murray in 1886 during the heyday of empire. A second edition appeared in 1903. Since then, the book has never been out of print; my copy is dated 1994, with a "historical perspective" by the distinguished, nonagenarian Indian writer, Nirad C Chaudhuri.

Now, for the first time, Oxford University Press has published the book – fittingly, given that its 1886 edition was read in proof by Dr James Murray, editor of what was to become the Oxford English Dictionary, which currently has some 500 citations of Hobson-Jobson.

The curious title is an Anglicised version of the mourning cries of "Ya Hassan! Ya Hosain!" at the Shia festival of Muhurram. As with many other names, words and phrases in Indian languages, the British sahibs misheard and transformed the words into their own mangled spellings.

OUP's editor Kate Teltscher provides an enjoyable introduction, with some illuminating, unfamiliar biographical information about the authors, Colonel Henry Yule and the linguist Dr AC Burnell. Both served in India for many years and decided to collaborate after meeting at the India Office Library in London in 1872. She abridges the original edition and provides some useful notes on the colonial context, with some translations of citations, which she keeps sensibly short, given that the book is a "bravura performance of the art of annotation itself".

Teltscher notes that the entry on opium is "conspicuously silent" about the Opium Wars of 1839-42 and 1856-60, and British India's devastating but profitable opium trade with China. Hobson-Jobson's fascination is best demonstrated by an (abbreviated) extract. Under "PYJAMMAS" (which derives from a Hindi word), we find: "Such a garment is used by various persons in India, e.g. by women of various classes, by Sikh men, and by most Mahommedans of both sexes.

It was adopted from the Mahommedans by Europeans as night attire, and is synonymous with Long Drawers, Shulwáurs, and Mogul-breeches. … It is probable that we English took the habit like a good many others from the Portuguese… The word is now used in London shops. A friend furnishes the following reminiscence: 'The late Mr. B-, tailor in Jermyn Street, some 40 years ago, in reply to a question why pyjammas had feet sewn on to them (as was sometimes the case with those furnished by London outfitters) answered: 'I believe, Sir, it is because of the White Ants!"." Who can now resist turning to the entry on "Mogul-breeches"?

Chaudhuri called Hobson-Jobson "an account of British rule and of the Indo-British connection which is at the same time noble and mean, serious and trivial, pathetic and cruel, comical and tragic". Everyone interested in British India should have a copy.

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