Josna Rege

190. Hobson-Jobson

In Books, Britain, India, reading, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on April 9, 2013 at 10:25 pm


First published in 1886 by (Col.) Henry Yule and  A.C. Burnell (and re-issued in an augmented edition by William Crooke in 1903), Hobson-Jobson is still the definitive dictionary of Anglo-Indian colloquial words and phrases.

51N9-Y80yeL._SL500_AA300_The term “Anglo-Indian” may require a little explanation. During the British colonial period when Hobson-Jobson was produced, it referred to the British in India, while since Independence in 1947 it has referred to people of both English and Indian descent, that community of Indians who have an English ancestor, usually dating back to the colonial period. When you hear, say, the very English E. M. Forster’s A Passage to India (1925) being referred to as an Anglo-Indian novel, the term is being used in the older sense. I. Allan Sealy’s The Trotter-Nama (1988), on the other hand, is Anglo-Indian, as its its author, but it is also an Indian English (or Indo-Anglian, as it used to be called) novel. Confusing enough for you?

Back to Hobson-Jobson. The entries in it come mostly from India via Hindi and other South Asian languages (with a pronounciation all their own), but also from British colonial and mercantile adventures both further East, such as the Malay peninsula, and further West, such as Turkey.  However, it also has its English words, that, like its Indian ones, have distinct Anglo-Indian usages. “Home,” for instance: the entry reads, In Anglo-Indian and colonial speech, this means England. It goes on to quote an anonymous source in 1837: Home always means England; nobody calls India home —not even those who have been here thirty years or more, and are never likely to return to Europe (Letters from Madras, 93).



In her article, Hobson-Jobson: the Words English Owes to India  Mukti Jain Campion lists a few of them. Here is the portion of her selection from a to h:  atoll, avatar; bandana, bangle, bazaar, Blighty, bungalow; cashmere, catamaran, char, cheroot, cheetah, chintz, chit, chokey, chutney, cot, cummerbund, curry; dinghy, doolally, dungarees; guru, gymkhana; and hullabaloo.

_44757120_poppies226Contemporary Indian English writers have had a heyday wth Hobson-Jobson. As Campion notes, Salman Rushdie used it to hilarious effect in Midnight’s Children (1981), delighting in the sing-song double-barrelled rhyming effect of words like “Hobson-Jobson” itself and coining such beauties as “writing-shiting.” Amitav Ghosh actually masters it as it is used by certain characters in his novel, Sea of Poppies (2008), as he similarly does Lascari in the mouths of other characters and Pidgin in the second of the trilogy, River of Smoke (2011).

People don’t speak this kind of English in India today, rooted as it is in the master-servant relationships of the colonial experience. But if you listen out for it, contemporary Indian English still retains something of its flavor and flair.

Check it out: this link here connects you the Hathi Trust Digital Library version of the dictionary, either for view online or for download as a PDF.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

Chronological Table of Contents


  1. Josna, I found this post extremely enlightening. That list of English words owing their existence to India is fascinating. Now that I look at them closely it makes so much sense. So enjoy your posts. There’s always a sense of crossing barriers when I read them. Thank you.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed it, Don. There are so many more. And, as my father noted when I was talking about it with him today, there are so many twists and turns these words and phrases take in their journeys round the world, such as a Hindustani word that is taken up into Portuguese, and then returns to India with a Portuguese flavor. A similar thing happens with plants and foods. (If you don’t mind reading long books, you might enjoy Amitav Ghosh’s Ibis Trilogy (only two out so far), which really has fun with these kinds of journeys. It is also available as a Book-on-Tape, which is all the most fun because of all the accents.) Thank you for your kind comment.

  2. Ho I never ever knew tht these words owe their origin to India!

    • Yes, and so many more, Meena. In fact, one could do a whole A-to-Z blogging challenge on the subject! Thanks for commenting. I enjoyed my visit to your page and will return.

  3. I have read several of Ghosh’s books. I started Sea of Poppies but never finished it. I should take another look.

  4. Fascinating reading, Jojo! I must get hold of Sea of Poppies. Also would love to hear the one on tape!
    My grandfather was one of the people in North East India who helped drive the Opium trade out of that area back after WW II, I believe. It was introduced to the tribals by the English and was a real scourge. There was a lot of a cloak and dagger feel about it, and he became known as someone who would not tolerate it’s presence.

    Thanks again for the topic.

    • I didn’t know that about your grandfather, Marianne. I’m sure he was up against many powerful forces. There’s a lot of cloak-and-dagger stuff in _River of Smoke_, as well. _Sea of Poppies_ is set mostly in India and _River of Smoke_ mostly in Canton, China. Really fascinating–and disturbing, too.

  5. […] powerful is that it is impure, having absorbed words from so many different languages (see TMA 190, Hobson-Jobson). At a time when so many languages are endangered we should be thankful to find them changing, […]

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