Hobson Jobson

The recent shi’ite pilgrimage to Karbala has gotten a lot of attention. Jon Stewart and his gang had a really funny bit about it on the Daily Show, highlighting the cultural distance. People so overwhelmed with religious fervor that they cut their heads open – how can I relate to that? I can’t grok it any more than I can really grok speaking in tongues or snake handling.

However, I doubt that I truly understand what’s going on in the physical world in Karbala, let alone in the heads of these pilgrims. Observers of religions foreign to them tend to grotesquely misunderstand and misrepresent what they see. This pilgrimage reminded me of the title entry of Hobson-Jobson, by Colonel Sir Henry Yule, and last night I spent a while flipping through that book.

Yule was a knight, a soldier in the Sikh wars, a translator and a civil servant in India. A perfect Victorian – valiant and almost comically learned.

In 1886 he (and his deceased co-author, A. C. Burnell) published Hobson-Jobson. From the preface:

Our work indeed in the long course of its compilation, has gone through some modification and enlargement of scope; but hardly such as in any degree to affect its distinctive character, in which something has been aimed at differing in form from any work known to us. In its original conception it was intended to deal with all that class of words which, not in general pertaining to the technicalities of administration, recur constantly in the daily intercourse of the English in India, either as expressing ideas really not provided for by our mother-tongue, or supposed by the speakers (often quite erroneously) to express something not capable of just denotation by any English term. A certain percentage of such words have been carried to England by the constant reflux to their native shore of Anglo-Indians, who in some degree imbue with their notions and phraseology the circles from which they had gone forth. This effect has been still more promoted by the currency of a vast mass of literature, of all qualities and for all ages, dealing with Indian subjects; as well as by the regular appearance, for many years past, of Indian correspondence in English newspapers, insomuch that a considerable number of the expressions in question have not only become familiar in sound to English ears, but have become naturalised in the English language, and are meeting with ample recognition in the great Dictionary edited by Dr. Murray at Oxford.

Yule’s wide-ranging curiosity (and his blasted Victorian ability to read more than I will ever be able to) led him somewhat astray from that goal:

It has been already intimated that, as the work proceeded, its scope expanded somewhat, and its authors found it expedient to introduce and trace many words of Asiatic origin which have disappeared from colloquial use, or perhaps never entered it, but which occur in old writers on the East.

and further astray…

Other divagations still from the original project will probably present themselves to those who turn over the pages of the work, in which we have been tempted to introduce sundry subjects which may seem hardly to come within the scope of such a glossary.

The wonderful people at the Digital South Asia Library at the University of Chicago have provided a searchable online version of Hobson-Jobson.

Here are the entries for
Hobson-Jobson itself,
Juggernaut,
and Firefly.

I’ve put the first two words here to provide examples of cross-cultural understanding of religion. If you have access to the OED or some other dictionary which gives historical quotations, look up “mumbo-jumbo” for more of the same. I give you “Firefly” out of love.

Wordsworth used to publish a cheapo version of Hobson-Jobson, but it looks like it might have gone out of print.

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