Pyjamas did not exist until the 19th century. I’m not sure what people wore to bed in the 1700s, but it wasn’t pyjamas. Pyjamas by any other name may well have been as snug, but the fact remains: without the English in India, there would be no India in English. The best way to understand this story is to get your hands on a Hobson-Jobson.
As its subtitle says, Hobson-Jobson is “A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, And of Kindred Terms; Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive.” The first edition was published in 1886. And now Kate Teltscher, a scholar at Roehampton University, has heroically abridged the 1903 2nd edition for our reading pleasure (Oxford University Press, £14.99). She has halved its size to a very manageable 570 pages, without cutting any good bits.
The glossary was the brainchild of two men, each representative of their age. The first was born in 1820, in East Lothian, Scotland. He was named Henry, after his aunt. The aunt named Henry is a good metaphor for the life and career of Colonel Sir Henry Yule—Bengal Engineer, editor of medieval texts, historical geographer—perfectly normal for 19th-century Britain; utterly strange to us, looking back.
Yule lived a classic Victorian life. His father, himself a fine Persian and Arabic Orientalist, was in the Bengal army and Henry followed him to India, picking up his interest in languages. As part of the Bengal Engineers, Henry was involved in the expansion of the Indian canal system and railway network. He also received the Royal Geographical Society’s gold medal for his English edition of Marco Polo’s travels.
If these twin accomplishments—engineering and translating—seem discordant, consider that he would sometimes sign his letters “Marcus Paulus Venetus”—as Marco Polo himself. A successful man of Yule’s type in Victorian British India felt himself to be at the frontier of civilisation. He followed the mythic path of imperial western heroes, from Alexander the Great to Marco Polo, who had explored India, to the benefit of the “natives.”
An anecdote from Amy Yule’s biography of her father illustrates the doublethink that characterised the colonist’s simultaneous good nature and arrogance. Around 1845, Yule was occupied at the engineering workshops that helped build the canal at Roorkee. He had no trouble tolerating the din of construction, but “the unpunctuality and carelessness of the native workmen sorely tried his patience, of which Nature had endowed him with but a small reserve.” He would lose his temper, and then feel so remorseful afterwards that he began fining himself two rupees per outburst. When he left Roorkee, “he devoted this accumulation of self-imposed fines to the erection of a sun-dial, to teach the natives the value of time.” Well-intentioned, pragmatic, paternalistic: classic Henry.
In 1840, the same year Yule arrived in Calcutta, future South Indian magistrate and judge Arthur Coke Burnell was born in Gloucestershire. Burnell was physically weak but had a fearsome intellect. His copious work on Sanskrit made an immense contribution to western scholarship. He offered Arabic as his oriental language when applying to the Indian Civil Service after university, but eventually mastered Sanskrit, Portuguese, Dutch, Italian, Javanese, Coptic, and Tibetan.
Henry and Arthur met around 1872, in what I imagine to be the ultimate meet-cute over a dusty volume, at the Indian Office Library. Yule proposed that they write a glossary of Anglo-Indian slang—that is, words used by English people in India. He presided over the project with Burnell as his employee. (Burnell sadly never lived to see their project’s publication—he died at 42, ravaged by cholera, pneumonia, and overwork.)
Two Victorian lives, then, whose combined colonial knowledge, enthusiasm for language and literature, immense capacity for work, and position of social authority mixed together to produce something quite special: Hobson-Jobson.
In her delicate introduction to this new edition, Teltscher explains that the book’s charming title is a “distorted, anglicised version of the mourning cries of ‘Ya Hassan! Ya Hosain!’ at the Shia festival of Muharram.” Hence, “the law of Hobson-Jobson” is, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, the process by which a foreign word is wrenched into the sound-system of the adoptive language. Hobson-Jobsonism is the reason that “mulligatawny” sounds quite different from Tamil milagu-tannir (“pepper-water”) but meets the eye less like a soup and more like some kind of Scottish owl.
Hobson-Jobson provides a lexical snapshot of a truly strange and fascinating moment in world history—the very pinnacle of British imperial dominance over other lands—and for that reason alone, this new edition is worth your time. But this glossary is also an indispensable handbook to the rich and awkward inheritance of the British Empire, as it lives on in the mouths of contemporary speakers of English today.
Perhaps this is best illustrated by example. I loved my childhood drama teacher. I loved her so much that I got my mum to draw a picture of her. She sketched a little caricature, in which the teacher made an “ok” sign, with a catchphrase hovering beside her in a speech-bubble: “Pukka!” When she saw the catchphrase spelled out, my teacher was horrified. She had visualised the word as spelled differently, imagined it as Scottish regional dialect, I think. She wasn’t in the least repulsed by Hindi or Tamil, from which “pukka” is loaned—a nicer drama teacher one could not imagine. Rather, she was upset to think that she had been appropriating somebody else’s language. She thought she’d been saying one thing, when all along it was another. The teacher didn’t like that she was saying pukka because she hadn’t been in control of its implications.
For a full biography of this tricky little word, specifically in its incarnation as a loan-word into English, there is no better place to look than Hobson-Jobson. So, what’s the true definition of “pukka”? Well, firstly, the present-day British English slang use of “pukka” is a true definition. People all over Britain use the word, all the time, to mean solid, trustworthy, sure. Observe definition 3.b in the OED’s entry:
b. Brit. slang. Excellent, superb; ‘cool’.
1991 Sun 13 June 23/6 Hey, man, that shirt’s pukka.
1996 Observer 5 May (Review Suppl.) 7/6 Girls mug girls for jewellery or pukka clothes.
2002 C. Newland Snakeskin xix. 255 ‘Yuh mum’s pukka,’ Davey chimed in, with so much passion I knew he wasn’t just being polite.
Hey, man, that word is pretty nineties. (Those drama classes did take place in 1997, now I think of it.) But where did it come from in the first place? Pucka is most fully defined in Hobson-Jobson in contradistinction to its antonym, cutcha:
CUTCHA, KUTCHA, adj. Hind. kachcha, ‘raw, crude, unripe, uncooked.’ This word is with its opposite pakka (see PUCKA) among the most constantly recurring Anglo-Indian colloquial terms, owing to the great variety of metaphorical applications of which both are susceptible.
1863. – “In short, in America, where they cannot get a pucka railway they take a kutcha one instead. This, I think, is what we must do in India.” – Lord Elgin, in Letters and Journals, 432.
This entry is characteristic of Yule and Burnell’s approach throughout; gently witty anecdotes illuminate each entry’s definition. They also provide a handy side-by-side comparison of the two words’ meanings. Selected highlights below:
So, from Hobson-Jobson we learn that British pukka is a fairly literal loan from Hindi and Urdu (pakka), but that the English adopted it as a metaphor. Its literal sense survives in Indian terms like “pucca housing,” often used today to describe permanent residences which are less susceptible to natural disaster. Pukka as a metaphor is rather poetic and lovely, particularly in its equal applicability to a mortal fever or a macadamised road.
Hobson-Jobson reveals some of its cultural bias, however, in what it leaves out. There is no entry, for example, for pukka-sahib. This term literally means a high-class European; a European might describe his friend thus if he wanted to suggest that he was a first-class gent. As we can read in EM Forster’s A Passage to India, however, pukka-sahib is also used satirically to refer to an attitude of prim, arrogant, magisterial aloofness: the ruling hypocrite’s pose. Henry Yule was a pukka-sahib for the ages. Teltscher wisely points out that the extensive Anglo-Indian lexicon of abuse and obscenity is left almost entirely out of the glossary, along with the prominent omission of the East India Company’s monopoly in the entry for “Opium.” By contrast, “Nigger” is included—not of Indian origin, but in such wide currency that it was deemed relevant.
Most of the entries in Hobson-Jobson contain the prejudices of the time but remain disarmingly charming. For example:
“Lit. ‘leg-clothing.’ A pair of loose drawers or trowsers, tied round the waist. Such a garment is used by various persons in India, e.g. by women of various classes, by Sikh men, and by most Mahommedans of both sexes. It was adopted from the Mahommedans by Europeans as an article of dishabille and of night attire, and is synonymous with Long Drawers, Shulwáurs, and Mogul-breeches.”
Pyjamas, that is. Or, should I say, “PYJAMMAS, s. Hind. pae-jama (see JAMMA).” Your reaction to “Mohammedan,” the archaic English misnomer for “Muslim” based on the assumption that Mohammed was Islam’s “version” of Christ, is up to you. See entries also for: kedgeree, gymkhana, dungaree, bungalow, gingham, kiosque, khakee, mantra, muslin, polo, pepper, pundit, sarong, shampoo, sherbet, and shawl.
If that list sound a bit too much like a Center Parcs apparatus list, look up the entertainingly violent origins of “juggernaut,” “to run amok,” “loot,” and “thug.” Yule’s preface to the 2nd edition is included here, offering such nuggets as these:
“Even phrases of a different character—slang indeed, but slang generally supposed to be vernacular as well as vulgar—e.g. ‘that is the cheese’; or supposed to be vernacular and profane—e.g. ‘I don’t care a dam’—are in reality, however, vulgar they may be, neither vernacular nor profane, but phrases turning upon innocent Hindustani vocables.”
That is the cheese. Many readers will be surprised to discover the extent of Portuguese influence upon the Anglo-Indian jargon (in words like “catamaran” and “mango”), which is down to their role in South Asia prior to British monopoly. A vast variety of origin languages are quoted here, including Urdu, Tamil, Hindi, Arabic, Marathi and Malayalam among many others.
The most interesting entries include something of the contemporary social mores of colonial British India, while also communicating linguistic mysteries behind common words. My favourite entry for sheer surprise value is that for “compound,” as in enclosed grounds rather than a molecule. It turns out that “compound” is probably a corruption of Malay kampong, and has nothing whatsoever to do with the word “compound” which one uses in chemistry (that one derives from the Latin componere). Also brilliant are the number of Indian wildlife referred to simply by a British name with “brahminy” prefixed to it, e.g.: brahminy bull, brahminy duck, brahminy kite.
All very interesting, and fully warranting Hobson-Jobson’s position on your shelf. But something is nagging about that title. Hobson-Jobson, Jobson-Hobson. Its cuteness, its Victorian nursery-rhyme appeal makes me uneasy. There is something jolly and old-fashioned about this book which will appeal to the trivia-loving, moustache-twirling, Eats, Shoots and Leaves-owning, tea-dance-attending, Waugh-quoting pedant.
In the past few years, an aesthetic lust for the past has gone mainstream. Britain rode a great wave of nostalgia in 2012. The Diamond Jubilee, quite rightly, gave the nation and its Commonwealth licence to cast its eye affectionately over 60 years of its history. But it isn’t healthy to look backwards so long, so hard, and so uncritically. We used to luxuriate in one Dickens adaptation every so often, but now Downton Abbey has thrust the costume-drama viewing experience into a soap opera allegro. From Peter Moffat’s romp through the early 20th century in The Village, to Radio 4 programmes on Steampunk, to the indisputably mainstream status of vintage clothing, to YouTube tutorials on how to do your hair like a Land Girl: we can’t get enough of the consumable past.
I’m not suggesting that there is anything dubious about being interested in the etymology of “shampoo” or “sherbet” (“dungarees” are doubtless innocent of this charge also, although the jury is still out on “harem,” as in pants.) But it is the case that patriotism and the vintage aesthetic feed off one another. If we are lazy about our enthusiasm for the British past, especially when it all starts looking a bit Henry Yule, then we risk forgetting about the nasty, violent bits. As the blogger Silver Goggles reminds us, our delighted recreation of the look of British history can sometimes mean dealing clumsily with the reality of British history.
“Hobson-Jobson” is a sweet rhyming term, and, like “pukka,” it means something. But it is also a pretty disrespectful bastardisation of a real religious practice. Better to use a word and know its biography than fear unknown implications, I’d say. Best of all, the more we learn about this little lexicon, the more we can talk about all this: our oddly absorbent language, the things the British did in the name of Empire, the inestimable debt we owe the countries and cultures that were and are tethered to us by history. Teltscher’s new edition is a door into these conversations—one worth opening.