Henry Yule & A.C. Burnell, Hobson-Jobson: The Definitive Glossary of British India, a selected edition, edited by Kate Teltscher (Oxford University Press, 2013)

08/06/13, The Times

Shawl. Bazaar. Mantra. Pundit. Shampoo. Pyjamas. These are common enough. Or even mufti, dinghy, toddy, sepoy, cheroot, veranda. But what about cummerbund, nabob, bulbul, hookah, cowry? Welcome to the world of Hobson-Jobson, the definitive dictionary of British India.

Hobson-Jobson was compiled by two Victorian polymaths, Henry Yule and Arthur Coke Burnell, both ‘old India hands’. Yule lived in India from 1840 to 1862, and was involved in two vital British undertakings in the subcontinent – the laying down of the railway network and the expansion of the irrigation system. After his return to Europe, he entered a life of immensely successful scholarship as a historical geographer, yet he was an important figure in the administrative and bureaucratic world too, as an appointee to the Council of India and to innumerable governmental and learned committees. Erudite, influential, well-connected and indefatigable, he belonged to a class of people, identified loosely as ‘gentleman-officer-scholar’, who were ‘crucial to the production of colonial knowledge in India’.

Coke provided the linguistic heft to Hobson-Jobson. A senior bureaucratic figure in colonial India, he began as a student of Arabic, then moved on to become proficient in Sanskrit and south Indian languages, earning honours from universities overseas. Besides these Indian languages, he mastered Portuguese, Dutch, Italian, Javanese, Coptic and Tibetan. The two men met at the India Office Library in London in 1872 and began their collaboration; Coke died at the age of 42 in 1882, leaving Yule to see it through to completion.

First published in 1886, then reissued in an augmented edition in 1903, this is a glossary like no other: a ‘cabinet of linguistic curiosities’, an unrivalled historical document, a riveting insight into the colonial project, and a delightful reading (or long-term casual browsing) experience, all infolded in one. Teltscher’s introduction to this new abridged edition is a model of lucidity, intelligence, scholarship and readability. She writes, ‘What made Hobson-Jobson unique was its ambition to marry serious philological work with discursive commentary, to entertain as much as inform, and to organize the glossary on historical principles, supplying extensive illustrative quotations’. It’s what appears between the definition of a word and the illustrative quotations that gives Hobson-Jobson its peculiar personality, its consistently surprising and entertaining nature. While being a testament to the astonishing range of the compilers’ reading and interests, these explications often stray, delightfully, into the anecdotal or personal. The entry for “pyjammas”, for instance, has this bit inserted before the two examples appear: ‘The word is now used in London shops. A friend furnishes the following reminiscence: “The late Mr. B—-, tailor in Jermyn Street, some 40 years ago, in reply to a question why pyjammas had feet sewn on to them (as was sometimes the case with those furnished by London outfitters) answered: ‘I believe, Sir, it is because of the White Ants!’ ” ’.

Teltscher also identifies something very important, that the ‘core lexis derives from the earliest Asian-European trading contacts.’ What is colonialism at its core but an economic and commercial venture? Language being a primary site of all kinds of contestations, a glossary, more than any text, is inescapably marked by faultlines. Hobson-Jobson accordingly reveals some of the intractable underpinnings of colonialism. One only has to search for terms on Indian religious or social beliefs prevalent in English use at the time (‘karma’, say, or ‘kismet’) – in vain; they are absent – to get a feel for the overwhelming sense of cultural superiority. Colonialism was, after all, a ‘civilising mission’ too. Other significant elisions are eloquent about colonial anxieties: the East India Company’s monopoly in the cultivation of opium is passed over under ‘opium’; there are no entries on the large vocabulary of abuse amongst the British community in India (‘kaffir’, ‘gully’, ‘wog’).

Hobson-Jobson is the product of a collision of unique material, historical and cultural forces. Colonialism provides only one, albeit the most important, aspect of this ferment. The Victorian passion for taxonomy and lexicography is another. Two years before the first edition of Hobson-Jobson, the multi-volume National English Dictionary (NED) began to be published. We know the NED by its later name: the OED. And the number of citations of Hobson-Jobson in the OED? 500.