Words and Stuff Johnny Gri­mond

The Oldie - - NEWS -

‘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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from UK

© PressReader. All rights reserved.