‘Hobson-Jobson’ – a Dictionary That Represents the Multiplicity of India

Labelled as “the legendary dictionary of British India,” Hobson-Jobson reflects the idiosyncrasies of both the coloniser and the colonised, and the growing unrest among an educated and outspoken native Indian middle-class, particularly in the 1870s.

Honson-Jobson was first published in 1886. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Hobson-Jobson was first published in 1886. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

Lie back on your ‘charpoy’ and tug away at your ‘hookah’; in case your ‘chillum’ needs refilling, holler for the ‘naukar-chaukar’. The week-day holiday necessitated by the 70th celebration of the birth of ‘Hindostan’ should give you plenty of time, and a credible reason, to savour your tobacco as you dwell on this ‘peshcush’ about India’s contribution to the English lexicon.

It was in 1872 that Arthur Burnell of the Madras Civil Service mentioned to his friend, Henry Yule, that he had been collecting a vocabulary of Anglo-Indian words. Yule, a Scottish Orientalist, had also been taking note of such words and phrases, and the men decided to work together on creating a glossary of words of Asian origin, used in British India. “This was the beginning of the portly double-columned edifice which now presents itself, the completion of which my friend has not lived to see,” wrote Yule, in the preface to the dictionary titled Hobson-Jobson, and subtitled A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive. It was first published in 1886, four years after Burnell died, and Yule is generous in acknowledging his friend’s passionate scholarship:

“But Burnell contributed so much of value, so much of the essential; buying, in the search for illustration, numerous rare and costly books which were not otherwise accessible to him in India; setting me, by his example, on lines of research with which I should have else possibly remained unacquainted; writing letters with such fulness, frequency, and interest on the details of the work up to the summer of his death; that the measure of bulk in contribution is no gauge of his share in the result.”

The result is a bewildering catalogue of everything the subtitle promises: ‘kindred’ or foreign words marching into the lexicon with Arab or Portuguese invaders and traders; quaint etymologies; administrative terms and names of outposts; ‘discursive’ notes on words like ‘nautch’, which, the Hobson-Jobson informs, the poet Robert Browning was fond of, but used incorrectly.

Henry Yule
Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive

There are names of coasts and harbours that offer Merchant Ivory-esque views of topography, or evoke the tyrannies of war, or suggest the biases of the colonisers. The Diamond Harbour, for instance, is “an anchorage in the Hooghly below Calcutta, 30 m. by road, and 41 by river.” Madras is described as:

“This alternative name of the place, officially called by its founders Fort St. George, first appears about the middle of the 17th century. Its origin has been much debated, but with little result. One derivation, backed by a fictitious legend, derives the name from an imaginary Christian fisherman called Madarasen; but this may be pronounced philologically impossible, as well as otherwise unworthy of serious regard.”

The etymological discourse on ‘Madras’ is about a page-and-a-half long. Other definitions of places like ‘Chowringhee’, ‘Cochin’, ‘Dacca’, ‘Gurjaut’, ‘Point De Galle’ and ‘Punjaub’, as well as the literature cited to give credence to location or flora and fauna or popular myth are like fine cartographic needlework in words.

Currency too, provides a glimpse into the empire’s coffers, its trade relations and its insatiable greed for gold. There is the ‘Dīnār’ (Arabic gold coin), the ‘Madrafaxao’ (gold of Guzerat), the ‘Xerafine’ or ‘Xerafim’ (silver coin, applied to a degenerated value) and the ‘Rupee’ (or ‘rūpiya’), which is described as:

“The standard coin of the Anglo-Indian monetary system, as it was the Mahommedan Empire that preceded ours.”

The smallest Anglo-Indian copper coin, the ‘Pie’, also finds a place in Hobson-Jobson’s comprehensive and painstaking catalogue. But it isn’t merely the commerce of the Raj that delineates the geographies of its colonies or the mores of its brown-skinned people. Hobson-Jobson enumerates the services provided by the empire’s subjects to their ‘sahibs’ and ‘memsahibs’; work that indicates the social class and caste of the native. There is the ‘consumah’ or ‘khansama’, “the chief table servant and provider, now always a Mahommedan,” proclaims the dictionary. There is the ‘dufterdar’, a native revenue officer, and the ‘duftery’, a servant in any office primarily in Bengal, whose task is to dust and bind the records, rule papers, make envelopes and mend pens. There is the ‘moochy‘, usually a low-caste Hindu, a shoemaker or saddler who works in leather.

Surnames too, find a mention as markers of caste and birth rank. ‘Mahájun’, derived from the Sanskirt mahā-jan, is a “great person,” usually a banker or a merchant. ‘Nair’, also a Sanskrit derivative of ‘Naik’, is the name of the ruling classes of the Malabar, and ‘Nambeadarim’ is a general or a prince. ‘Chuckerbutty’ is a corruption of ‘Chakravartti’, “the title assumed by the most exalted ancient Hindu sovereigns, an universal Emperor, whose chariot-wheels rolled over all (so it is explained by some),” informs the dictionary. ‘Chandaul’, at the bottom rung of the caste order, is “properly one sprung from a Sudra father and a Brahman mother.” This verse from Rudyard Kipling’s 1895 poem, ‘The Mother-Lodge’, is a motely cross-section of the caste-and-creed hodgepodge recorded in Hobson-Jobson:

We’d Bola Nath, Accountant

An’ Saul an Aden Jew,

An’ Din Mohammed, draughtsman

Of the Survey Office too;

There was Babu Chuckerbutty,

An’ Amir Singh the Sikh,

An’ Castro from the fittin’-sheds,

The Roman Catholick!…

Perhaps the most curious explanation is that of the title Hobson-Jobson, which Yule, in his preface, admits to being a “veiled intimation of dual authorship.” But it is also an example of Anglo-Indian argot (like ‘naukar-chaukar’). The dictionary demystifies its title:

“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!’”

There are trees like the ‘Cheenar’, boats like the ‘Bunder-Boat’, infidels like the ‘Caffer’ or ‘Caffre’ or ‘Coffree’, officials like the ‘Dispatchadore’, intoxicants like ‘Gunja’, drums like the ‘Tom-Tom’, vessels like the ‘Martaban’ and the ‘Chillumchee’ and small guns like the ‘Zumbooruck’ to ignite your imagination with all the adventure, romance and oriental exoticism you may have encountered through the writings of Rudyard Kipling, E.M. Forster, Paul Scott and Joseph Conrad. The dictionary represents that chaos and multiplicity of India, about which Forster wrote, in the political weekly The Nation and the Athenaeum, in 1925: “The reader of any book about India should remember as he closes it that he has visited only one of the Indias.”

Henry Yule. Credit: Wikimedia Commons

This long-winded project, undertaken by two imperialists, represents the idiosyncrasies of both the coloniser and the colonised, the vernacular corruptions of Anglo-Saxon words and habits, ranks of the civil services, voyages and nautical terminology, the political priorities of the ruling classes and the growing unrest among an educated and outspoken native Indian middle-class, particularly in the 1870s.  Words like ‘creole’ and ‘nigger‘ are listed in the dictionary, confirming the brutal nature of all associations with representatives of the Empire, and reaffirming stereotypes, like the one bandied about by S.S. Thorburn, who observed in Musalmans and Money-Lenders in the Punjab first published in 1886, that the people of India were “the dumb toiling millions of peasants inhabiting the villages, hamlets and scattered homesteads of the land.”

Hobson-Jobson’s racial affronts and its condoning of segregation through its lexicographical lore – more evident to a contemporary reader, particularly one from the Indian subcontinent – have not prevented its recurrent and enthusiastic publishing. It has never been out of print; a new edition, prepared by Kate Teltscher of Roehampton University, was published by Oxford University Press in 2013. Salman Rushdie has declared it “the legendary dictionary of British India” – this, despite the occurrence of the word ‘futwa’ in the dictionary, is by far the most generous testimony to the peculiar delights of its columns and annotations.

Yule’s 1886 preface perhaps pre-empts the unease of future generations with Hobson-Jobson’s many insensitivities and limitations, for it concludes with an apology for errors. “In a work intersecting so many fields, only a fool could imagine that he had not fallen into many mistakes; but these when pointed out, may be amended.” But the second edition, published in 1902 and edited by William Crooke, assuages Yule’s self-deprecation, and lauds him for this unique, if somewhat disorderly catalogue. In his ‘Preface to the Second Edition, Crooke writes:

“More recent research and discoveries have, of course, brought to light a good deal of information which was not accessible to him, but the general accuracy of what he wrote has never been seriously impugned – while those who have studied the pages of Hobson-Jobson have agreed in classing it as unique among similar works of reference, a volume which combines interest and amusement with instruction, in a manner which few other dictionaries, if any, have done.”

Indeed, Hobson-Jobson is as instructive and amusing as Crooke proclaims. It is also a tome as heterogeneous, bombastic and thrilling as the country which lends it its unique words and diction, a country listed as ‘India’, ‘Indies’ in the dictionary, about which the annotation begins thus:

“A book might be written on this name. We can only notice a few points in connection with it.”

Radhika Oberoi is a freelance journalist based in New Delhi.

Liked the story? We’re a non-profit. Make a donation and help pay for our journalism.