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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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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