In 1872 two men began work on a lexicon of words of Asian origin used by the British in India. Since its publication the 1,000-page dictionary has never been out of print.
Hobson-Jobson is the dictionary’s short and mysterious title.
The subtitle reveals more: “A glossary of colloquial Anglo-Indian words and phrases, and of kindred terms etymological, historical, geographical and discursive. By Colonel Henry Yule and AC Burnell.”
I’ve had a soft spot in my heart for Hobson-Jobson ever since I picked up a cheap facsimile reprint edition more than a decade ago. As a young dictionary buff with an interest in the languages of South and Southeast Asia, I was enthralled by this sweeping work of colonial scholarship on the “Anglo-Indian tongue.”
Henry Yule and A.C. Burnell catalogued not just words from the Indian subcontinent that had worked their way into English but also colonial-era introductions from Malay, Persian, Arabic, Chinese, and other Eastern languages. Its two editions (in 1886 and 1903) were influential on other dictionaries, especially the Oxford English Dictionary, which borrowed heavily from Hobson-Jobson for etymological information and historical examples of Asian loanwords.
So what’s up with that name? In the preface, Yule explains how he and Burnell hit upon the title:
If the reader will turn to Hobson-Jobson in the Glossary itself, he will find that phrase, though now rare and moribund, to be a typical and delightful example of that class of Anglo-Indian argot which consists of Oriental words highly assimilated, perhaps by vulgar lips, to the English vernacular; whilst it is the more fitted to our book, conveying, as it may, a veiled intimation of dual authorship.
And in the dictionary itself, Hobson-Jobson is described as an Anglicization of “Ya Hasan, ya Husain!” — the wail of Shi’i (and sometimes Sunni) Muslims during Muharram, the procession commemorating the martyrdom of Ali’s two sons Hasan and Husain. The citations in the entry show how this got transformed by the British à la the Telephone game: Hosseen Gosseen, Hossy Gossy, Hossein Jossen, and ultimately Hobson-Jobson.