Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

The Story Behind "Hobson-Jobson"

I recently made my way to Bloomington, Indiana for the biennial conference of the Dictionary Society of North America, a sublime convergence of unabashed word-nerdery. There was a fascinating array of paper presentations, on everything from grand old men like Samuel Johnson and Noah Webster to cutting-edge techniques in online lexicography. But one paper that I found particularly enjoyable had to do with a Victorian-era "Anglo-Indian glossary" that has had remarkable staying power over the past century or so, perhaps in part due to its memorable title: Hobson-Jobson. The paper, by Traci Nagle of Indiana University, took a look at exactly how the dictionary ended up with such a peculiar name.

I've had a soft spot in my heart for Hobson-Jobson ever since I picked up a cheap facsimile reprint edition more than a decade ago. As a young dictionary buff with an interest in the languages of South and Southeast Asia, I was enthralled by this sweeping work of colonial scholarship on the "Anglo-Indian tongue." (The cheap reprints are still floating around, and since it's in the public domain you can also find it for free online, such as this searchable version hosted by Digital Dictionaries of South Asia.) Henry Yule and A.C. Burnell catalogued not just words from the Indian subcontinent that had worked their way into English but also colonial-era introductions from Malay, Persian, Arabic, Chinese, and other Eastern languages. Its two editions (in 1886 and 1903) were influential on other dictionaries, especially the Oxford English Dictionary, which borrowed heavily from Hobson-Jobson for etymological information and historical examples of Asian loanwords.

So what's up with that name? In the preface, Yule explains how he and Burnell (who had died before the publication of the first edition) hit upon the title:

It seemed to me that A Glossary or A Vocabulary would be equally unattractive, and that it ought to have an alternative title at least a little more characteristic. If the reader will turn to Hobson-Jobson in the Glossary itself, he will find that phrase, though now rare and moribund, to be a typical and delightful example of that class of Anglo-Indian argot which consists of Oriental words highly assimilated, perhaps by vulgar lips, to the English vernacular; whilst it is the more fitted to our book, conveying, as it may, a veiled intimation of dual authorship.

And in the dictionary itself, Hobson-Jobson is described as an Anglicization of "Ya Hasan, ya Husain!" — the wail of Shi'i (and sometimes Sunni) Muslims during Muharram, the procession commemorating the martyrdom of Ali's two sons Hasan and Husain.  The citations in the entry show how this got transformed by the British à la the Telephone game: Hosseen Gosseen, Hossy Gossy, Hossein Jossen, and ultimately Hobson-Jobson.

As Nagle points out in her paper, such "rhyming reduplication" in English tends to be either juvenile (Humpty Dumpty, hokey-pokey) or pejorative (namby-pamby, mumbo-jumbo). And Hobson-Jobson adds another layer of disparagement and disdain: Hobson and Jobson, it turns out, were stock characters in Victorian times, used as generic names for a pair of yokels, clowns, or idiots.

Undoubtedly, the associations that contemporary readers would have had with the title Hobson-Jobson weren't very nice; indeed, reviewers tended to laud the book but considered the title grotesque and inappropriate. Perhaps sensing the negative reaction that the title of the work would engender, it seems that Yule and Burnell kept the title a secret from just about everyone (including their publisher!) until shortly before the publication date.

So why did they want to use such a turnoff of a title? Their motives are still not entirely clear, though Yule does tantalizingly mention in the preface "a veiled intimation of dual authorship." Did Yule and Burnell see themselves self-deprecatingly as Hobson and Jobson — the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of Anglo-Indian lexicography? That may very well have been a later justification once they had fixed on the rhyming pair as emblematic of the work as a whole.

And yet despite the backlash against the title, Hobson-Jobson has had such a profound influence that it has now been enshrined in dictionaries under the law of Hobson-Jobson, defined by the OED as "a phrase sometimes used of the process of adapting a foreign word to the sound-system of the adopting language." One language that gave rise to many Hobson-Jobsonisms in English is Malay, as spoken in colonial times in the British and Dutch East Indies (now Malaysia, Singapore, and Indonesia). Yule and Burnell give many examples of Malay terms that got assimilated to preexisting English words:

  • amok (run around violently) > a-muck
  • bangsal (shed, warehouse) > bankshall
  • gadis (young woman) > goddess
  • gudang (warehouse) > godown
  • jung (Chinese ship) > junk
  • kampung (quarter, residential area) > compound
  • kris (Javanese dagger) > crease
  • padi (rice plant) > paddy
  • perahu (boat) > prow
  • rotan (rattan) > rattan

Hobson-Jobsonisms like these are fascinating bits of cultural appropriation. Nagle's paper made me realize that the very title of the book is intimately wrapped up in the prejudices of the colonial encounter, laden with cruel condescension of "the natives." Still, learning that Hobson-Jobson wasn't simply a fun bit of rhyming reduplication does not lessen my esteem for the dictionary that Yule and Burnell produced. It's still an exceptional work, and it wears its contradictions on its sleeve with that unforgettable title.


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Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Thursday June 4th 2009, 8:42 AM
Comment by: Don H. (Antioch, CA)Top 10 Commenter
Decades ago I lived in the Philippines and learned a Hobson-Jobsonism. The only word from Tagalog (so they told me) that made it into standard English was the word "bundok," which means either "mountain" or "mountain range," and became transmogrified into our word "boondock" and later "boonies."
Thursday June 4th 2009, 10:40 AM
Comment by: Valerie P.
It always amazes me how when we learn a new word or phrase, it comes up again shortly thereafter. Just last week, while eating Chinese food in Nanjing, China with a friend from Singapore, she told me about the word "shiok" which means extremely good. This led us to talk about the many websites about food in Singapore. Later, while exploring these websites, I found a whole new world of jargon, referred to as Singlish. That was just four days ago... and today I read about Hobson-Jobson... Does this happen to everyone?

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Bonbon Mots
- 27 Comments
Language Lounge explains why you shouldn't pooh-pooh reduplication.
We have reduplication to thank for words like "mishmash."
Reduplication is good for dilatory words like "shilly-shally" and "dilly-dally."