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Aug 13, 2001
This week's theme
Words about words

This week's words
eye dialect

“Words are the small change of thought.” ~Jules Renard
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with Anu Garg

Every year, in early April, followers of the Shia sect of Muslims take part in elaborate processions commemorating sacrifices of Husain, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. They beat their chests with fists and iron chains as a mark of penance while chanting "Ya Hasan! Ya Husain!" To a native English speaker, those cries perhaps sound more like "Hobson-Jobson". So, in 1886 when Henry Yule, a member of the British occupation in India, published a book of anglicized colloquial words from Indian languages, he chose that very expression as the title for his collection: Hobson-Jobson. And ever since we refer that process and the words thus formed by the same name.

This process of lexical and phonological assimilation of words from one language to another is not confined to any particular set of languages. We see this mix of pun and folk-etymology whenever speakers of two diverse languages cross paths. You may have heard about "Harry Kerry," the preferred method of suicide by Japanese warriors. Here are other examples:

  • Juggernaut from Sanskrit Jagannatha.
  • Plonk (cheap wine) from French [vin] blanc.
  • Mary Jane/Mary Warner/Mary Jane Warner for Mexican/Spanish marijuana.
  • Hocus-pocus from Latin hoc est corpus.
You can browse the Hobson-Jobson dictionary here. While you are there, don't forget to look up puggry, a word ending in gry.

During the rest of this week, we'll look at a few other words about words.


(HOB-suhn JOB-suhn) Pronunciation

noun: Adaptation of a foreign word or phrase to fit the sound and spelling patterns of the borrowing language.

[From the title of a book of the same name.]

"Rushdie's characters talk like Wodehouse characters playing with Hobson-Jobson: `In this God-fearing Christian house, British still is best, madder-moyselle.... If you have ambitions in our boy's direction, then please to mindofy your mouth.'"
James Wood, Salaam Bombay!; The New Republic (Washington, DC); Mar 18, 1996.


As freely as the firmament embraces the world, / or the sun pours forth impartially his beams, / so mercy must encircle both friend and foe. -Johann Christoph Friedrich von Schiller, poet and dramatist (1759-1805)

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