How we got pukka

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How we got pukka


What can a Victorian glossary of Anglo-Indian slang tell us about the British empire? (Image by Josephine Livingstone)

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.

  1. June 29, 2013

    "Consumable Past"

    Many thanks for bringing this work — along with your judicious commentary — to our attention. I’m drinking an excellent (Lagunitas) IPA as I’m reading.
    As for any anti-Indian snobbery: well, that cuts no ice with me.

  2. June 29, 2013

    Sam Bharr

    I wonder if the Glossary contains “tickety boo,” recently revived in Call the Midwife. Pronounced “theek hey baaboo” in Hindi, it literally means “very good sir,” or “all’s well, sir.” An interesting etymology — although it brings a smile, it was usually an acknowledgement from an Indian in servitude..

  3. June 29, 2013

    tony in san diego

    “But it is also a pretty disrespectful bastardisation of a real religious practice.”

    Somthing like ‘hocus pocus” or “abra cadabra”

    • June 30, 2013


      … well put, this review is annoyingly pious in terms of Respect, guilt etc

  4. June 29, 2013

    Rob T.

    This piece combines the innocent arrogance of youth with one of the worst aspects of history as a discipline: the tendency to sit in judgment over persons whom the writer did not know, based upon inevitably incomplete information. This sort of thing works with the likes of Hitler, but not so well with those who inhabit the grey area of the moral spectrum–that is, almost everyone else.

    Fortunately for the historians, most of them needn’t fear being treated by posterity the same way they treat the Henry Yules of the world, precisely because most historians are inconsequential alongside their subjects. Perhaps this fact helps to explain historians’ need to moralize critically from their ostensibly more enlightened perspective? In any case, it brings to mind the old saw that those who can, do, and those who can’t, teach. I would add that those who can’t teach, preach.

    • June 29, 2013

      Karen Myers

      Got that right. It was startling to see a piece like this from someone so young and narrowly-read as to have completely missed the tone and charm of the doings of folks more than a century ago.

      I’m glad to know of the new edition, but this is not the fellow to set it in context.

    • June 30, 2013


      … yes indeed: we have had a surfeit of piety and would be angsty guilt & criticism … the past is another country and knee jerk judgement is annoying, to put it mildly …

  5. June 29, 2013

    Word Nerd

    My most exciting find in Hobson-Jobson was the origin of the phrase “I don’t give a damn!” Look up “dam”.

    • June 29, 2013


      She does seem to be devoid of humour.

      • June 29, 2013


        Indeed, and nervously, anxiously, even frantically (through somehow under her breath) guarding against, isolating, flagging, and distancing herself from every whiff of prejudice, bias, and chauvinism she can detect, even incipiently, in the interesting text she examines. To what purpose? Does Josephine Livingstone think that we will charge HER with the prejudices expressed in the writings and hidden in the terms of 19th century colonial scholars and adventurers unless she explicitly rejects them? But of course to thus charge her would be preposterous, so her motive must be different. Does she think her readers are too obtuse to notice those slurs unless she highlights them and explains their prejudicial nature? Come on! So, could it be that she seeks to advertise to us, her readers, how free of prejudice, and therefore how “good”, she herself is? Or is it simply a means of flagging her allegiance to the modern priesthood of political correctness? Whatever her motive, she apparently deems it important enough to allow it to cramp her style, marring an otherwise interesting review.

  6. June 29, 2013

    Michael Feld

    What a coincidence! I just yesterday loaned my pb copy of this classic to a scholar of South Asian literature. Great read.
    (And as to “a book by a chap”, do a title-search for _Book_ on the catalog of your local library.

  7. June 29, 2013


    yeah, the salient point surely, is the “tone and charm” of orientalists who were appropriating words from the language of a people being subjugated under the iron boot of british imperialism.

  8. June 30, 2013


    When I read this tone, so half idiotic of many contemporaneous political correct people, I always remember this thing, which should be a compulsory watching for all of then, as the author of this article.

    • July 3, 2013

      David Lloyd-Jones


      Your small problem is that the British Empire didn’t bring any of that stuff to India.

      The main worldwide product of European imperialism was the spread of smallpox.

      What England gave the world was filthy, illiterate little English buggers running around India, typically using their bayonets to pry jewels out of the walls of the Taj Mahal. A civilization might be thought of as a place where you can put jewels in the wall sof public buildings without ignorant little twirps coming aoround to steal them for tobacco money.

      So your good Monty Python skit is the wrong thing. Point not made. Yer irrelevant.

      One more data point for the theory that the main thing wrong with imperialism is not what it does to the wogs, it’s the fools it makes of the empire builders.


  9. June 30, 2013

    Amalin Ferguson

    Why so harsh? She’s a young pip. Give her a break. Go read the papers you wrote at her age and tell me that they don’t make your cheeks warm.

  10. June 30, 2013

    Annie Morgan

    Oh it’s at the top of my Christmas list!! Wonderful review, too, which I will stick in the book when I get it. My cousin, whom I met in the 1950s when he was in his 80s or so, worked for the British in India in 1885-1900 – I wish he were alive to enjoy it. He missed being there terribly.

  11. July 1, 2013

    Robert Beard

    I have no recollection of ever seeing or hearing this word in North America, but I have a sound file for it in the Good Word database (my daily words since 2000). I don’t know how it got there. I confess to suffering from a mild stroke two years ago, maybe that explains it. I can now remember words I’d forgotten and can’t remember those I remembered/

  12. July 1, 2013

    Robert Beard

    By the way, tomorrow’s Good Word is ‘pukka’ with a link back to this page.

  13. July 1, 2013


    Cracking review. What’s with all the ad hominem comment? Refute the woman or get off your high horse.

  14. July 1, 2013

    David Lloyd-Jones

    “.. but the fact remains: without the English in India, there would be no India in English,” the Prospect tells us, but like many Well Known Facts, this is hooey.

    It may be true that in the most recent centuries English imperialism brought the vocabulary of bureaucrats and military rulers from the many Indian languages into English, but to say this is the whole thing is to ignore both the power and the long term reach of Sanskrit.

    The age of the English language is less than that of the European use of gunpowder. Sanskrit, by contrast, has been informing and enriching all the languages of Eurasia for five or seven thousand years.

    On the assumption that this is a family paper, I shall leave out the most popular and obvious example in daily use everywhere.


  15. July 1, 2013

    K. Iyer

    I learn something every day. Today, I learned, for the hundredth time that folks of “manifest destiny” benevolently disciplined the natives. When and where will I learn, in English language, about why the natives were not all that crazy about giving their “hearts and minds” to the murderous plunderer except, of course, for a few sycophants? Who will tell me, in English language, that a whole lot from the tiny islands were lured to the faraway land with the promise of unlimited supply of smooth-skinned boys? How will I ever come to know in English language that “mlecha” was the most common epithet for the “saviors” especially in the Bengal of the old? I have so much more to learn and not too many sources in English language.

  16. July 1, 2013

    Annie Morgan

    Gracious me – am I so innocent I don’t see all that angst and guilt that most everyone seemed to see? The review is one thing, but the book itself is surely another, so I shall have to read more reviews. Maybe being politically incorrect in my thinking (if not in my speech – I am fairly tactful out loud) keeps me from those aforementioned emotions.

  17. July 1, 2013

    Fern Heidrick

    What does she think “meet cute” means?

  18. July 3, 2013


    such a promising idea! – but running amok is malay not indian – pass the smelling salts..!

  19. July 3, 2013

    Annie Morgan

    Thank you for the link, Nick – it’s full of interest. I’m looking forward even more to my Christmas present!

  20. July 3, 2013


    Interestingly, the word “pukka” becomes a loan-word from “Hindi and Urdu”. But the root is actually “pakka” – pure sanskrit, literally meaning well-ripened-matured/well-digested. Hence it is used in several large dialects of the north and centre outside of Hindi and Urdu – and also in Bengali – which the Brits would encounter more widely than Hindi or Urdu in the expansion of their empire.

    But that root cannot be noted – as usual – because it goes beyond the cultural aspects India should be associated with. Its a Mughal-sherwani past that the English must think – it borrowed from, not the Sanskrit-ik one.

    • July 4, 2013

      k, iyer

      The Sanskrit root word for “perfectly cooked” or “readily ripe” is PAKVA. Sanskrit- English dictionaries are everywhere.

  21. July 8, 2013

    Tim Entwisle

    Enjoyed reading the review and the comments. I do understand the responses to the little lecture at the end. I judge it badly for its judging.

  22. September 27, 2013


    The contretemps that seems to have started with David Lloyd-Jones’s

    ‘“.. but the fact remains: without the English in India, there would be no India in English,” the Prospect tells us, but like many Well Known Facts, this is hooey.’

    But this argument is giving off more heat than light; stuff happens, and the history of it depends on who stops the clock and when. For another discussion of Hobson-Jobson and what came first, see my posts and its sequel.


  23. November 9, 2013


    As I read this, a million tidbits of thoughts floated across my mind but as I set to comment, the wine has taken over. The best I can do, under the circumstances, is throw a few links – and a few random thoughts – at the more curious readers who chance by this blog.

    Hobson-Jobson is a very clever title. The writer missed that Yule and Burnell sententiously picked up a very Indian onomatopoeic tradition. This is common across the Indo-European or Dravidian or other linguistic trees .Examples in “Hinglish” abound. YouTube has an entertaining if foul-mouthed act by Russell Peters, Canadian-Indian stand-up comedian that goes into this bit. “English-Vinglish” is a 2012 movie comedy in the usual shallow, gaudy, melodramatic Bollywood style.

    The Economist review of Jobson-Hobson is here:

    A hilarious excerpt on NPR:

    Googling for this comment, I came across many interesting hits but will post just this curious one from Amazon (curious because the provenance seems to be the USA!):
    “On some alleged specimens of Indian onomatopoeia (Transactions of the Connecticut Academy of Arts and Sciences) Unknown Binding – January 1, 1871
    by J. Hammond Trumbul”

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Josephine Livingstone
Josephine Livingstone is a doctoral candidate in English at New York University. Her website is 

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