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.
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