Hobson Jobson

First publication: Civil and Military Gazette, 15 April 1886


Sussex Scrapbooks 28/3, p. 18

The full title of Sir Henry Yule and Arthur Burnell’s Hobson- Jobson runs thus: Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive, London, John Murray, 1886. It contained 870 pages, was brought out in a revised edition in 1903, and remains the standard treatment of its subject today. In the revised edition Kipling himself is one of the authorities cited among the illustrations.

The Article

Colonel Yule’s Hobson-Jobson is not a book to be lightly disposed of in one review. The difficulty in glancing over its eight hundred closely packed pages is where to begin; and having once begun, where to leave off. The idea of the book, we are told, sprang originally from a correspondence, fourteen years ago, between Colonel Yule and the late Mr Burnell of the Madras Civil Service. The two gentlemen conceived the notion of compiling an Anglo-Indian glossary; and the result of their labours is a fascinating volume, neither glossary, vocabulary, dictionary or anything else that may be described in one word, but simply — Hobson-Jobson: a glorified olla podrida (a stew of pork and beans) of fact, fancy, note, sub-note, reference, cross-reference, and quotations innumerable, bearing on all things connected directly or indirectly with the East. Justly does Colonel Yule call it a ‘portly, double-columned edifice’. It is a book which, unless we are much mistaken, will take its place among the standard works on the East; and will pass, gathering bulk as it goes, from decade to decade. Words, says Colonel Yule, are the jetsam which the tides of languages cast up on the beach of human thought — to be gathered together and placed in cabinets by the curious. When the author of Hobson-Jobson takes a word up, he deals with it lovingly, showing how it grew or fell away from its original purity by the corruption of time; also in what varying senses it has been used; concluding finally by three or four notes, or sometimes a page of quotations from all manner of strange and recondite sources, which shall throw a full or a side light on that word. Where his trove has no particular history, he tells, like the sages of old, a tale in a pleasantly discursive manner. Bundobust (arrangement, system, agreement…) , for instance, has no pedigree; but its meaning is varied and its use extensive. Forty-three years ago an old khansamah (steward) informed the author that there must be a bahut accha bundobust in Belait (‘thank you’ agreement in England), because the young and raw Sahib on his arrival at Calcutta was wont to say ‘Thank you’ to his servants when they brought him tea. Three months of the East, continued the khansamah, changed civility into abuse. This explanation is supplemented with a couple of lines from the ever-dear Ali Baba; and shows in some measure from what mixed sources Colonel Yule builds up his information.

Of bus (Stop ! Enough!), Colonel Yule says justly, ‘few Hindustani words stick closer by the returned Anglo-Indian’. Turning to Jinrickshaw, which Colonel Yule spells ‘Jennyrickshaw’, we find that its exact meaning is ‘man-strength cart’’’, and here those who may be ignorant of two most pleasant books are introduced, by the way of quotation, to Miss Bird’s ‘Japan’, and Gill’s ‘River of Golden Sand’. As a suggestive book, over and above all its other merits, Hobson-Jobson — pity it is that the title is so uncouth — stands alone.

One of these days it may set the Government searching for a substitute for opium revenue when that drug ceases to be imported into China. The Chinese set a far higher value on the ginseng root than on opium, paying from six to four hundred dollars an ounce for it, and attributing to it miraculous virtues. An inferior sort of ginseng comes to China from America; but there exists a very closely allied plant in our own Himalayas. Supposing that the genuine root could be grown in India, or the substitute educated up to its relative’s powers, the possibility of an extensive and remunerative trade would seem to be assured; for ginseng, apart from the mythical attributes with which it has been invested, has many of the good points of opium without its drawbacks.

On one point Colonel Yule errs slightly. He discredits the old story that the fat-tailed sheep — the doomba — is ever provided with a small cart to uphold its tail. Now there exists at the present day in Lahore City, a fighting doomba full of years and fatness. On state occasions his venerable doomb is packed on to a wheeled platform which is profusely decorated with red paper and tinsel. Thus adorned, he parades the streets fully conscious of his merit. The tail is only honoured in the case of a ram of unblemished courage.

Every one in the East — the book ranges from Constantinople to Japan — should possess himself of Hobson-Jobson and once possessed of it should apply himself diligently thereto. It will coerce him pleasantly to consult other books and to explore fresh avenues of thought; and may end in making him something that at a pinch might pass for an oriental scholar. Further, it will interest him intensely throughout.