I’m interested in words. Language is fascinating  – its history, progression and influence. I’m curious how certain words came to be and where they came from. The idea that if Dante Aligheri were alive today, we would have a conversation in his little-changed Tuscan Italian is mind-blowing. I’ve read that the Italian greeting “ciao” comes from the word “schiao” – Venetian dialect shortened for “sono vostro schiavo” or “I am your slave.”  “Salve” – a greeting used frequently in Northern Italy where we lived but unfamiliar to most people outside the region – comes from the latin verb “salvere” or to be in good health.

Then there are informal contractions used out of context or awkwardly. I lie awake at night when my Italian PhD student friend  and European business owner-acquaintance use the English word “wanna” in their written correspondence. I haven’t had the heart to confront them, but my insides knot up  to see an inappropriate use of “want to.”  But, somewhere and somehow Euro-English – the official language of the European Union –  has decided that “wanna” is okay – even in formal correspondence. But I digress.

It’s interesting to hear how words have been borrowed and imitated and transformed by foreigners. When I taught Business English in Italy, I heard “chattare” ( an Italian verb rooted in the English Internet word “chat”), along with “stress”, “weekend”, “computer”, “video”, “blog” and “clic.” I would love to collect these words in some sort of index or glossary.

Which brings me to Hobson-Jobson.

“A glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms etymological, historical, geographical and discursive. By Colonel Henry Yule and AC Burnell.”

More than 100  years ago Yule and Burnell collected more than 2,000 entries – with notes –  of Indian words borrowed, used and sometimes changed by the English living there. This legendary dictionary of British India was called the Hobson-Jobson, a scholarly but fun glossary published in 1886 – and lists Anglo-Indian words like shampoo  (from the Indian word “champi or head massage), bungalow, pyjama, curry and bangle. The book also – perhaps indirectly – gives us a historical and social snapshot of the relationship between the two countries. The book can be seen as a memoir, BBC News writes, of colonial India.

For example, the Indian word dam is defined as originating from the damri coin that once existed but now means something is worthless (Damri – Dam – Damn). An exceprt from the Hobson-Jobson text reads:

“Damn  is a common enough expression for the infinitesimal in coin, and one has often heard a Briton in India say : ” No, I  won’t give a dumree!” with but a
vague notion what a damri meant, as in Scotland we have heard, ” I won’t
give a plack” though certainly the speaker could not have stated the
value of that ancient coin.”

Word lovers can get their hands on a new edition of the Hobson-Jobson next year launched as part of the Oxford World Classics Series. You can learn more about it here via BBC which is broadcasting a radio program focusing on the ever loved Hobson-Jobson.

words photo credit: National Institutes of Health NIDCD


2 responses to “hobson-jobson

  1. Monique, I share your love of words and learning their history. In my studies of English literature at UCLA I was required to take a course called The History of the English Language. It was fascinating. I can’t wait to get a copy of the book you mentioned and I will take a look at the BBc link you gave us. Have a great week!

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