Hobson-Jobson — The Definitive Glossary of British INdia
Henry Yule & A C Burnell
Oxford University Press
2013, pp 570

Some years ago, when Indian cities started hosting annual book fairs, nuclear Indian families would return home from such outings, happily armed with a bag-load of fairly inexpensive and readable books — and spend the following days, reading, browsing — and occasionally throwing intriguing questions at each other,viz. ‘Do you know that…’, ‘Guess the meaning of…’. It was good utilitarian fun.

A perusal of the latest pruned and revised edition of the encyclopedic Hobson-Jobson (an iconic work of idiosyncratic scholarship from 1886, authored by Henry Yule and A C Burnell), could well result in similar activity. The book subtitled, The Definitive Glossary of British India, is in fact a compendium of words and phrases that were coined, used and popularised during the days of the British Raj, all 200 years and beyond, going back to earlier times too, when the Portuguese had started trading along our sea coast and left behind usable bits of their language to be mixed up with local Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Hindi, and of course the English of British India. Other visitors too — Chinese, Arabs, Europeans, traders, invaders — have left their mark on India’s English language.

British scholar and author Kate Teltscher has edited this new updated Hobson-Jobson in a manner that makes it relatable and readable: a historical presentation of the language of Anglo India. Besides digging into etymological roots of commonly used words, the glossary also frequently digresses into delightful anecdotes, puns and samples of literature through the ages, involving the words under consideration.
Here is a sample selection:

The almyra (almari in Hindi) is known to us as a wardrobe with shelves. It has its roots in Portuguese almario; the French armoire too is close to almyra. Life in Mofussil, a work from 1878, features this line: ‘Sahib, have you looked in Mr Morrison’s almirah?’
The monstrous  South American water-serpent anaconda was in fact once, a late 17th century native of Ceylon, and known even then by the same name. But there is confusion as to the origin of the name. One story suggests that ‘anaconda’ could be a corruption of a Tamil phrase aanai kondra — ‘that which killed an elephant.’ Now that’s an extremely interesting theory.

Bandicoot is said to originate from the Telugu pandi-kokku or pig-rat. Jute is rooted in the Sanskrit word jata (the matted hair of an ascetic). Khakee — singular noun or adjective — is derived from the Hindi word khaki, meaning dusty or dust coloured; also, the Persian khak, meaning earth or dust.

Mosque originates from the Arabic masjid — literally a place of sujud or prostration. Masjid became Spanish mezquita, Portuguese mesquita, Italian meschita, French mosquete, mosque — and thence to the English mosque. Sepoy, singular noun. In Anglo-Indian usage, this refers to a native soldier, disciplined and dressed in the European style. The word is of Persian origin — sipahi. Tiffin, singular noun meaning, a light luncheon; possibly a local Indian survivor of a British slang tiffing (‘eating or drinking out of meal times’). From William M Thackeray’s novel, Vanity Fair, 1845: ‘Come home and have some tiffin, Dobbin.’

The entries vary in length — explanations, etymology, connected literature and all available material, occasionally running to a couple of pages or more. The chosen words also vary in category. Some words coined through the past few centuries have been given ‘full franchise’; thus curry, sepoy, toddy, veranda and the like are now considered proper English words. But words like ayah, mahout, nautch etc — these still retain an Indian tinge, and are by extension, not totally English, although used often enough by popular Indian and English writers like Amitav Ghosh and William Dalrymple.

There is a third grouping of fully accepted words with distinct Indian origin — Calico for example refers to cotton that originated in Calicut. Other categories include — geographical names like Bombay, Malabar, Cathay; botanical and zoological terms like jute and mosquito (the Portuguese-Spanish root mosca means ‘a fly’); administrative terms like writer (referring to a junior civil servant or even a copying clerk in the East India Company). Interestingly, the government secretariat in West Bengal capital Kolkata still bears the nomenclature Writers’ Building).

Hobson-Jobson appeared in the 19th century at a time when England’s lexicographers were in full bloom, and an increasingly literate British public was discovering words and their backgrounds through tomes like the Oxford English Dictionary and other similar works — including Hobson-Jobson, which is ultimately more than a word glossary. It is in fact a history of Anglo India, a fitting tribute to all those scholarly men that toiled to make sense of a language that evolved through the many centuries of trade and foreign rule, some exploitation and arrogance, yet ultimately beneficial to English and non-English people alike.

This 19th century glossary continues to benefit English, the global link language in the 21st century.

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