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Woon, Wordy-Major and Wootz

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Dictionaries, encyclopaedias and the like are best browsed at leisure; approach them with an open mind and prepare for the unexpected. The entry sought may confirm or confound one’s expectations but greater enlightenment generally lurks elsewhere on the page. As with companions of any sort, the test of a compendium lies in the extent to which it diverts.

So I looked up – as one does – ‘Writer’. The entry contained no mention of penmanship and offered just two rather predictable definitions – predictable, that is, in a nineteenth-century work subtitled A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive.

The first definition of Writer gave ‘the rank and style of the junior grade of covenanted civil servants of the East India Company’ and the second ‘any copying clerk in an office, native or European’. No surprises there, then, although from the two columns of etymological examples that followed much could be gleaned about the covenanted writer’s lifestyle: it was ‘not a little scandalous’, often rather short, began early (James Forbes was just 16 when he stepped ashore at Bombay), could lead either to a military commission (e.g. Lord Clive) or neglect of the Company’s business in favour of one’s own (just about everyone), and it often engendered, especially in Madras, ‘exceeding pride and the knack of forgetting old acquaintances’. The same might be said of many later writers, covenanted or not. My eye strayed on. At the bottom of the page ‘Writer’ was followed by an entry on ‘Wug’, and on the facing page it was preceded by ‘Woon’, ‘Wordy-Major’ and ‘Wootz’. I’d never heard of any of them. They proved irresistible and so, in time, did the book.

Hobson-Jobson, to give it its better-known title, has now bee

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Dictionaries, encyclopaedias and the like are best browsed at leisure; approach them with an open mind and prepare for the unexpected. The entry sought may confirm or confound one’s expectations but greater enlightenment generally lurks elsewhere on the page. As with companions of any sort, the test of a compendium lies in the extent to which it diverts.

So I looked up – as one does – ‘Writer’. The entry contained no mention of penmanship and offered just two rather predictable definitions – predictable, that is, in a nineteenth-century work subtitled A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive.

The first definition of Writer gave ‘the rank and style of the junior grade of covenanted civil servants of the East India Company’ and the second ‘any copying clerk in an office, native or European’. No surprises there, then, although from the two columns of etymological examples that followed much could be gleaned about the covenanted writer’s lifestyle: it was ‘not a little scandalous’, often rather short, began early (James Forbes was just 16 when he stepped ashore at Bombay), could lead either to a military commission (e.g. Lord Clive) or neglect of the Company’s business in favour of one’s own (just about everyone), and it often engendered, especially in Madras, ‘exceeding pride and the knack of forgetting old acquaintances’. The same might be said of many later writers, covenanted or not. My eye strayed on. At the bottom of the page ‘Writer’ was followed by an entry on ‘Wug’, and on the facing page it was preceded by ‘Woon’, ‘Wordy-Major’ and ‘Wootz’. I’d never heard of any of them. They proved irresistible and so, in time, did the book.

Hobson-Jobson, to give it its better-known title, has now been a friend for twenty years. As a bedtime browse it replaced Bill Dalton’s Indonesia Handbook in around 1990. (Originally a serendipitous companion to the archipelago’s 1,700 islands, and larded with helpful tips on the availability of hashish, Dalton’s work has been much reissued and is now not as quirky as it was.) I can’t remember how I came by Hobson-Jobson. A quote from it appears on page one of my first book (Into India, 1973) but my only copy is a 1985 reprint of the second edition (1903) with a new foreword by Anthony Burgess. The first edition appeared in 1886 under the joint authorship of A. C. Burnell and Henry Yule. Burnell was a Sanskrit-minded member of the Madras Civil Service who died before publication and Colonel Sir Henry Yule was a dapper Scots soldier-scholar who, from retirement in Palermo, produced Cathay and the Way Thither for the Hakluyt Society and a magisterial edition of The Travels of Ser Marco Polo. Lexicography followed and, as well as Hobson-Jobson, Yule contributed substantially to James Murray’s work on what became the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘My first endeavour in preparing this work has been to make it accurate,’ says Yule in his foreword to Hobson-Jobson, ‘my next to make it interesting.’ Its accuracy has sometimes been questioned. Burgess, for instance, cocks an eyebrow over the notion that ‘I don’t give a damn’ was originally ‘I don’t give a dam’. Since a dam was an Indian copper coin of infinitesimal value, the entry claims that ‘whatever profanity there may be in the animus, there is none in the etymology’. So it was not the Duke of Wellington who, so to speak, coined the phrase; he merely turned it into an oath with the addition of an ‘n’. Yet no examples are forthcoming to show that English writers, even covenanted ones, ever did actually give a ‘dam’ about anything. Accuracy succumbs to conjecture – regarding bananas, ‘it can hardly be accidental’, we’re told, that the Arabic for fingers and toes is banan – yet the interest never flags. What Yule calls ‘divagations’ from the original project account for a richness of subjects that ‘may seem hardly to come within the scope of a glossary’. Thus, in north India, sauce for the goose is definitely not sauce for the ‘Ganda’, this being a corruption of the Sanskrit word for a rhinoceros. On the other hand ‘bamboo’, a word ‘of exceedingly obscure origin’ yet ‘one of the commonest in Anglo-Indian use’, has become as naturalized as ‘the gigantic grass’ to which it applies. We learn, too, of linguistic oddities like ‘the principle of degradation’, a trickle-down effect whereby titles decline in estimation from being terms of respect to terms of familiarity and finally of contempt. ‘Bibi’, for example, once denoting the consort of a nawab, then any wife, had by the late nineteenth century degenerated into a euphemism for a prostitute. Converting Hindi imperatives into quasi-English infinitives was another peculiarity of Anglo-Indian usage. ‘Puckerow’ and ‘Dumbcow’, properly pakarao and damkhao meaning ‘apprehend him’ and ‘silence him’, came to serve as English verbs and even nouns. Yule thinks this may ‘exemplify some obscure linguistic law’. More obviously it exemplifies the imperialists’ imperious behaviour. All the usual English borrowings from the East are here – gingham, dungarees, loot, bungalow, dinghy, typhoon, mandarin, shawl – and a good few that are less usual. ‘Bobbery-bob’, an interjection at times of stress, apparently derives from Bapre bap, ‘O Father, Father’. It was often to be heard at executions. Similarly ‘Hobson-Jobson’ itself, meaning ‘a native festal excitement’ (‘it’s just some local Hobson-Jobson’), is supposedly a bowdlerization of ‘Ya Hasan, Ya Hosain’, the Muslim cry that accompanies the breast-beating processions at Muhurram. Yule explains that the term was chosen as the title of the book on the grounds that it was more memorable than the wordy description that became the subtitle and that it ‘conveyed a veiled intimation of dual authorship’. It has also stuck, been imitated and become a generic term for any dictionary of hybrid words and cross-cultural customs. Hanklyn-Janklin or A Stranger’s Rumble-Tumble Guide to Some Words, Customs and Quiddities Indian and Indo-British was first published in 1992. A post-colonial sequel to Hobson-Jobson, it gives pride of place to Indian usages of English words rather than English usages of Indian words and will be found invaluable when trying to read an Englishlanguage Indian newspaper for the first time. The author, Nigel Hankin, a soldier who stayed on in India after Independence, explains the title with the assertion that ‘jingle or echo words’ (‘partywarty’, ‘booky-wooky’ etc) are much employed in an affectionate context within English-speaking Indian families; ‘the echo usually begins with a wa sound’, which would result in ‘Hanklyn-Wanklin’, but this ‘could seem a little outré’, says Hankin. Better might be ‘Hankin-Pankin’. It’s more in the spirit of ‘Hobson-Jobson’ and could be validated on the same jingly grounds as ‘rumble-tumble’, the Indian army slang for scrambled eggs (‘but of no great age since it is not mentioned in Hobson-Jobson’). Hankin draws attention to a review of Hobson-Jobson that appeared in Lahore’s Civil and Military Gazette in 1886. It was written by the young Rudyard Kipling, one of that paper’s two staff reporters, and it correctly foretold a great future for Yule and Burnell’s book: ‘unless we are much mistaken, it will take its place among the standard works on the east; and will pass, gathering bulk as it goes, from decade to decade’. Kipling’s only criticism related to the entry on the ‘Doombur’, otherwise the doomba or dumba, the sheep of Afghanistan that has a fat tail which, like the book, ‘gathers bulk as it goes’. Despite packing his entry with references to the tail gathering so much bulk that a small wheeled cart was needed to support it, Yule had been unable to find any evidence that this practice was ever in fact the case. Kipling set him right; outside his office there was just such a ram wandering the streets of Lahore towing its tail in a two-wheeled barrow. Scrupulous attention to details of no conceivable importance is what distinguishes both works. Thus, in case you’re wondering, ‘Wootz’ turns out to be ‘an odd name that has attached itself in books to the so-called natural steel of S. India but . . . has never since [1795] been recognised as the name of steel in any language and would seem to be a clerical error’; ‘Woon’ is merely a phonetic spelling of wun, the Burmese name for a governor or any other administrative officer; a ‘Wordy-Major’ is ‘a native adjutant of Indian Irregular cavalry’ (though ‘both the rationale of the compound title and the etymology of wardi are obscure’); and ‘Wug’ is the same as bag, being either the Sindi or Baluchi word for ‘loot’ – or rather for ‘a herd of camels’, they being the normal form of loot in what is now south-west Pakistan. And so on – for just over 1,000 pages. Hobson-Jobson has indeed passed from decade to decade, ensuring for the insomniac bibliophile long nights of worthless but never boring diversion.

Extract from Slightly Foxed Issue 36 © John Keay 2012


About the contributor

John Keay co-edited with Julia Keay the Collins Encyclopaedia of Scotland and the current edition of Macmillan’s London Encyclopaedia. Unlike Henry Yule, he did not have to handwrite the entire text of either of these books four times. The illustrations in this article are from Hanklyn-Janklin.

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