Mysteries of Hobson-Jobson

Hobson-Jobson is a 1,000 page dictionary listing colloquial Anglo-Indian words, phrases collected by British in India.


Khaled Ahmed July 17, 2012

A friend forwarded to me an article from the BBC website about Hobson-Jobson, a dictionary of a 1,000 pages listing colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases that the British collected while they ruled India. In 1872, two men, Colonel Henry Yule and AC Burnell, began the work and now, a new edition of Hobson-Jobson is due next year.

One word it traces to its origin is ‘damri’, a coin that once existed but today survives in an Urdu idiom indicating something worthless. It has given rise to the English swear-word damn and appears in the expression ‘I don’t give a damn’.

‘Damri’ is turned into ‘dam’ and is written ‘damn’. Since swearing is involved, ‘damnation’ is pressed into service. If you anglicise the word, it would be, ‘I don’t give a farthing’. It would mean, ‘I don’t think it is worth anything’.

In Pakistan, the expression is further distorted. If the British took it from here, it has come at us in a further mystery of  ‘I damn care’ among English speakers of Pakistan.

Is ‘dam’ copper in India? We know its real origin in the well-known word for it, ‘tanba’, which has many forms: ‘tambra’, ‘tamra’ and finally ‘tanba’ in Urdu. Its true etymology ‘tma’ means ‘dark’. The change is merely of a letter, which is not unusual.

I am taking Hobson-Jobson into a tangent of my own. The root ‘tm’ meaning dark is Indo-European. The Russians have the word ‘tyomni’ (dark) and ‘tma’ (darkness), which is the same as ‘tamas’ in Sanskrit. It relates to Latin ‘tenebrae’ and English ‘tenebrous’ (dark).

The article reveals the origin of Hobson-Jobson itself, which the readers may not find completely credible. The article says that according to a source, it is the Anglo-Saxon version of the words “Ya Hasan! Ya Hussain!” chanted by mourners during the month of Muharram.

A list of Indian words is featured in the article: bandana, bangle, bazaar, bungalow, catamaran, char, cheroot, chintz, chit, chokey, chutney, cummerbund, curry, dinghy, dungarees, guru, gymkhana, hullabaloo, jodhpur, juggernaut, jute, khaki, kedgeree, loot, pariah, pundit, purdah, pyjamas, shampoo, veranda, etc.

Two bad words, ‘thug’ and ‘dacoit’, are also our contribution to the English language. One Indian word ‘verandah’ is actually a Persian contribution to Urdu-Hindi: ‘bar-amdah’, literally ‘coming out’.

There is another oddity that Hobson-Jobson probably did not take note of but which has gone to England through the Indian restaurant. A word came to India from abroad, then went back from here as our word. The word is ‘balti’.

‘Balti’ is a pail that is cylindrical. But for some strange reason, up in Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa or former NWFP, the name ‘balti’ was given to what in the south would be called ‘karahi’, a round but open pot with two handles. ‘Balti’ became famous as a dish at Landi Kotal, the frontier town.

The Pashtun don’t eat much apart from meat. The meat they prepare in what they call a ‘balti’ became popular in Punjab, from where it went to London. Today ‘balti’ is in the Oxford Dictionary as a dish offered in Asian restaurants.

Balti as a word was introduced in India by the Portuguese. Its original form was ‘balde’ but we changed it into the more convenient ‘balti’. The other Portuguese words we inherited were ‘almari’ (cupboard), ‘pirich’ (saucer) and ‘praat’ (platter). It develops that we didn’t have any pot of our own with a flat bottom!

One curious word in Urdu is ‘istri’ (pressing iron) which is from Portuguese verb ‘strirare’ (to press). It got mixed up hilariously with the Hindi word ‘istri’ for wife.

Published in The Express Tribune, July 18th, 2012.

COMMENTS (29)

Indian Catholic | 9 years ago | Reply

@I am Sam:

You are right, it is "STREE" This can be seen from Google Translate that "STREE" = स्त्री. . Since neither the article nor we are using IAST or IPA, it was difficult for me to convey the fact that त्र = त + र and not ट + र. Hence leaving aside convention, I chose to use "TH". I also missed putting in the elongated "EE". . However the original point I made is that there is no इ in the beginning of the word for woman in any of the Indian languages I know. Hence with Indian script being phonetic and there being no such word, why would any one call it anything else?

Abid P Khan | 9 years ago | Reply @Dr. Doolittle: "The word “Camera” came from the desi word Kamra (room). Patloon came from pantaloon." If you are a medical doctor then you can bury your mistakes but if you have something to do with research then the suffering is going to last longer. Next time Domore research before making wild claims. Pantaloon is Italian originally Camera > kamra > is a vaulted space in Greek, the word chamber is related to it. .
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