3D front cover of Hobson-Jobson by Henry Yule and Arthur Coke BurnellAdvance warning of an interesting-sounding programme on BBC Radio 4 at 11 a.m. tomorrow (Friday): see the article on the BBC website. We reissued Yule and Burnell’s Hobson-Jobson, Being a Glossary of Anglo-Indian Colloquial Words and Phrases and of Kindred Terms,  in 2010 (we had to do it in two parts, as at the time the extent was too long for it to be bound in one volume in the POD process).

It is a fascinating dictionary, first published in 1886, and clearly designed to help British administrators and military personnel grapple with the hybrid language which was rapidly evolving around them. As the editors say, the vocabulary evolved ‘either as expressing ideas really not provided for’ by English, or ‘supposed by the speakers to express something not capable of just denotation by any English term’.

Sir Harry Yule (1820–89) was another Victorian polymath of Scots descent, who decided to join the army instead of following the law, as his family had intended. Appointed to the Bengal Engineers, he saw service in the Anglo-Sikh wars and was later involved in the development of the railway system across India. He had already been writing accounts of his travels before he retired from the army in 1862; settling in Sicily (for the benefit of his wife’s health), he began to produce book on historical and geographical topics, many of which were published by the Hakluyt Society, of which he was a founder and enthusiastic supporter. Of these, we have reissued Cathay and the Way Thither, the Mirabilia Descripta of the monk Jordanus, and the Diary of William Hedges, but he was perhaps most famous in his own day for the Book of Ser Marco Polo, a thoroughly erudite edition of the work of the thirteenth-century Venetian traveller (or yarn-spinner, depending on your viewpoint).

For Hobson-Jobson, he teamed up with the philologist A.C. Burnell (1840–82), who entered the India Civil Service as a ‘competition wallah‘, having studied Sanskrit and Telugu at King’s College London. His great scholarly interest was the languages of south India, and we will be reissuing his Elements of South-Indian Palaeography, from the Fourth to the Seventeenth Century shortly. He died sadly young, a victim of the Indian climate but also of his own punishing work schedule – his writing (including an edition of the Voyage of John Huyghen van Linschoten to the East Indies for the Hakluyt Society) was carried out in whatever time he had free from his administrative responsibilities.

Hobson-Jobson is eminently readable, and continually surprises with words that you would never have guessed were of Anglo-Indian origin. The title itself gives a clue to the cheerful spirit in which the book is written – a more serious team would simply have called it by the subtitle. And what, you may ask, does ‘hobson-jobson’ mean? ‘In origin the term is a corruption by British soldiers of “Yā Ḥasan! Yā Ḥosain!” which is repeatedly cried by Shia Muslims as they beat their chests throughout the procession of the Muharram; this was then converted to Hosseen Gosseen, Hossy Gossy, Hossein Jossen, and ultimately Hobson-Jobson.’


This entry was posted in Anthropology, Biography, History, Language and Linguistics, Linguistics, Literary Studies, Printing and Publishing History, Travel and Exploration and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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  1. Pingback: Sir Aurel Stein | Cambridge Library Collection Blog

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