It’s always fun when fuel for my posts comes through a friend or acquaintance — it’s like a little gift from the heavens. Just the other day, an article floated over to me on Facebook called “Hobson-Jobson: The Words English Owes to India.” With a title like that, you can bet my interest was piqued. It did not disappoint!
The story was about an eccentric duo of Victorian-era Brits who decided to create a lexicon of words of Asian origin used by the British in India which eventually found their way into everyday English Language. The result: A 1,000-page dictionary that has never been out of print. Launched in 1872, one member of the duo died before it was completed and the other, Colonel Henry Yule, threw in the towel after 14 years. Hobson-Dobson is “a madly unruly and eccentric work,” according to Indian poet Daljit Nagra.
In his introduction, co-author Yule notes that Indian words have been “Insinuating themselves into English ever since the end of the reign of Elizabeth….” Some of the earliest words adopted: calico, chintz, and gingham were later joined by pajamas, shampoo, bangle, bungalow, veranda, dungarees, thug, loot, hullabaloo, and bazaar — to name just a handful.
Both entertaining and eccentric, the oddball dictionary has inspired a number of writers, including Salman Rushdie. In Tom Stoppard’s play, India Ink, there’s a scene in which two characters compete to use as many Hobson-Jobson words as they can in a single sentence.
Everyone from scholars to authors seems to agree that what shines through the dictionary’s definitions is a delight in language and a hefty dose of originality. I love the idea that its authors and the whole enterprise are viewed as “madly unruly,” don’t you? It’s fascinating to think how supple and resilient words are — and how well and far they travel. Write on!