Words and Stuff Johnny Grimond
‘Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn.’ When Clark Gable parted from Vivien Leigh with those words at the end of Gone with the Wind, he clearly knew what he meant, as did she, but did he know that the phrase may have come from India?
Some say the dismissible ‘damn’ was really a ‘dam’, a copper coin of little value introduced to Indians by Sher Shah Suri in 1540-45 and later to their subsequent rulers, the British. If so, it was just one of hundreds of words borrowed, corrupted or hybridised during the British Raj.
The possibility is enjoyably discussed in Hobson-jobson, a book described in 1886 by its authors, Henry Yule and Arthur Coke Burnell, as ‘a glossary of Anglo-indian words or phrases and of kindred terms etymological, historical, geographical and discursive’. Neither quite lexicon nor encyclopedia, it is a book like no other, full of scholarship and idiosyncrasy, a ‘glorified olla podrida’ – a stew of pork and beans – said Kipling.
Merely by dipping into it, the reader can get glimpses of how life was lived by the British and their subjects, and by others from Burma to the Seychelles, from Constantinople to Japan. A page taken at random includes ‘Shoe-goose’, a ‘ludicrous corruption of the Pers[ian] siyah-gosh, lit[erally] “black-ear”, ie, lynx;’ ‘Shoke’, a ‘hobby, a favourite pursuit or whim… “One Hakim has a shoukh for turning everything ooltapoolta” – Confessions of an Orderly;’ ‘Shooldarry’, a ‘small tent… Platts spells the word chholdari, identifying the first syllable with jhol, signifying “puckering or bagging”; ‘Shraub, Shrobb’, ‘wine’… See under Sherbet’; ‘Shroff’, a ‘moneychanger, a banker… From the same root comes the Hebrew soref, a goldsmith… “The Arab poet says of his mare, Her forefeet scatter the gravel every midday, as the dirhams are scattered at their testing by the sairaf”.’
If the contents are sometimes puzzling, the title is even more so. ‘HobsonJobson’, says the entry on page 419, is a ‘native festal excitement’. The word derives from the cry ‘Ya Hasan! Ya Hosain!’, uttered by Muslims at Moharram ceremonies. By a process of Chinese whispers, this wail evolved into ‘Hussan Hussain’, ‘Hosseen Gosseen’, ‘Hossein Jossen’ and, eventually, ‘Hobson-jobson’.
Colonel Yule, a former engineer in Bengal, explains inadequately in the preface that the word, a ‘delightful example of that class of Anglo-indian argot which consists of Oriental words highly assimilated, perhaps by vulgar lips, to the English vernacular… is the more fitted to our book, conveying... a veiled intimation of dual authorship.’
Well, maybe. The title may have also appealed to the authors because Hobson and Jobson were names given to stereotypical simpletons in Victorian Britain. Choosing it as the title of their very unsimple book may have been a self-mocking joke.
Few of the words in Hobson-jobson are in common use in British English today, but many have become part of our language. Tom Stoppard used two characters in his play Indian Ink to give some of them an outing. ‘While having tiffin on the veranda of my bungalow, I spilled kedgeree on my dungarees and had to go to the gymkhana in my pyjamas looking like a coolie,’ says Flora. To which Nirad replies, ‘I was buying chutney in the bazaar when a thug who had escaped from the chokey ran amok and killed a box-wallah for his loot, creating a hullabaloo and landing himself in the mulligatawny.’
They might have gone on to discuss the merits of chintz, calico, cashmere and gingham when making a bandana, cummerbund or shawl; the delights of a toddy, curry, cheroot or just a cup of char; the differences between a dinghy and a catamaran; the allure of a bangle; the dangers of a juggernaut; the quest for shampoo; or the way some long for nirvana and some Blighty, while others go doolally. But they didn’t give a dam.