To understand India's influence on English, you need a Hobson-Jobsonby Josephine Livingstone / June 28, 2013 / Leave a comment
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…