Hobson-Jobson, Definitively


Col. Sir Henry Yule, colonial lexicographer

As my recent posts have reflected, I’m still basking in the afterglow of the meeting last month of the Dictionary Society of North America, a gathering of about a hundred people who make dictionaries, study dictionaries, or just enjoy words.

Since that meeting, I’ve argued that “Unabridged” is an odd name for a dictionary. But that’s nothing compared with Hobson-Jobson.

That’s the name given to a dictionary whose sober subtitle, in one edition, is A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive.

It’s an old dictionary, first published in 1886, so it’s in the public domain. You can find the full text of the 1903 second edition in Google Books.

And it’s a very scholarly dictionary on historical principles, much like the Oxford English Dictionary, whose first sections were beginning to appear in 1884. Traci Nagle, of Indiana University, talked about her research showing how closely Henry Yule, editor of Hobson-Jobson, cooperated with James A.H. Murray, editor of the OED, as both were at work on their books.

The OED was a much more massive enterprise, its first edition of 10 big volumes, comprising more than 400,000 entries, finally finished in its entirety in 1928. Hobson-Jobson was only one volume, of a little more than 2,000 entries. But for the words it contained, it was even more thorough in giving explanations and examples.

What it covers is the language spoken by the British who ruled India in the 19th century (and, indeed, until the mid-20th). And because it is not the standard English of the British Isles, Hobson-Jobson was helpful in clarifying communication between English and Indians.

It’s also a lesson in colonial attitudes, as the entry for the title word makes clear. British soldiers ignorant of Islamic ceremonies heard the shouts “Yā Hasan! Yā Hosain!” and put them into the English-sounding Hobson-Jobson:

“HOBSON-JOBSON, s. A native festal excitement; a tamāsha (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 heard it used by British soldiers in the Punjab; and has heard 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—‘Yā Hasan! Yā Hosain!’ It is to be remembered that these observances are in India by no means confined to Shī’as. …” The explanation continues at considerable length.

But why should that term become the title of the book? Yule explains in the preface:

“A valued friend of the present writer many years ago published a book, of great acumen and considerable originality, which he called Three Essays, with no Author’s name; and the resulting amount of circulation was such as might have been expected. It was remarked at the time by another friend that if the volume had been entitled A Book, by A Chap, it would have found a much larger body of readers. It seemed to me that A Glossary or A Vocabulary would be equally unattractive, and that it ought to have an alternative title at least a little more characteristic. If the reader will turn to Hobson-Jobson in the Glossary itself, he will find that phrase, though now rare and moribund, to be 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. …”

Indeed, Hobson-Jobson has developed another meaning, independent of that dictionary and its definition. “The law of Hobson-Jobson” has come to be a linguistic term, defined by the OED as “the process of adapting a foreign word to the sound-system of the adopting language,” like the name Picketwire from the French purgatoire.

A word, a book, a law. Pretty impressive, Hobson-Jobson!

Return to Top