English Today

Original Article

The law of Hobson-Jobson

Susan Purcell


Yule and Burnell's 1886 Anglo-Indian dictionary still fascinates and informs today. It is not the finest of Salman Rushdie's writings, but this is the first paragraph of his essay Hobson-Jobson (italics in original):

“The British Empire, many pundits now agree, descended like a juggernaut upon the barbicans of the East, in search of loot. The moguls of the raj went in palanquins, smoking cheroots, to sup toddy or sherbet on the verandahs of the gymkhana club, while the memsahibs fretted about the thugs in bandannas and dungarees who roamed the night like pariahs, plotting ghoulish deeds.” (Rushdie, 1992:81)

Rushdie points out that the italicised words all appear in the celebrated dictionary Hobson-Jobson: a glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms, etymological, historical, geographical and discursive by Henry Yule & A.C. Burnell, first published in 1886.

This gem of a dictionary gives definitions and origins of words in common use by the British in colonial India in the late nineteenth century. Some of the entries won't be a surprise to readers – we all know that raj, mogul and memsahib are Indian words. But there are many words with their origins in Hindustani, Bengali, Sanskrit or other Indian or Eastern languages, whose origin is perhaps not quite so well known.


Susan Purcell is a freelance writer.