Y is for Henry Yule

Round 20 of ABC Wednesday is billed as The Farewell Tour so this may be my last trip through the alphabet of the famous, the infamous and the forgotten.

Henry YuleEnglish is a rather predatory language that snatches words and phrases from other tongues, making them its own. and few cultures have added more than India and the Asian sub-continent.

The man who chronicled the words loaned to the English language was the geographer, Orientalist and travel writer Sir Henry Yule whose Anglo-Indian dictionary has never been out of print.

The Yules were originally an East Lothian farming family in Scotland. The name is likely to be of Scandinavian origin meaning winter time.

Henry Yule was born in Inveresk, near Edinburgh, in 1820, the son of Major William Yule whose passion for Arabic and Persian literature led him to translate the Apothegms of Ali the son of Abu Talib which he had privately printed in 1832.

Henry YuleHenry Yule was educated at Edinburgh high school and briefly at University College London before entering the Addiscombe Military Seminary and then the Royal Engineers Establishment before joining the Bengal Engineers in 1840.

His first posting was in the Khasi Hills in Assam, India, to help establish transport of coal to the plains and where his fascination with India and its people began. Yule served in both Sikh Wars, but returned to live in Edinburgh in 1848, lecturing at the Scottish Military Academy.

Yule went east again in 1852, working in Arakan and Burma before retiring in 1862 to concentrate on his writing which included Cathay and the Way Thither in 1866, and the Book of Marco Polo in 1871, for which he received the gold medal of the Royal Geographical Society

But Yule’s most famous work was the one he compiled with Arthur Burnell called the A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive, a dictionary of Anglo-Indian words and terms that entered the language during the British rule of India.

Hobson JobsonNot the snappiest title you’ll agree. Yule knew this so he gave it he simpler title of Hobson-Jobson, a phrase which refers to any festival or entertainment, but especially ceremonies of the Mourning of Muharram.

The term is a corruption of ‘Yā Ḥasan! Yā Ḥosain!’ which is repeatedly cried by Shia Muslims throughout the procession of the Muharram. British soldiers then converted this to Hosseen Gosseen, Hossy Gossy, Hossein Jossen, and ultimately Hobson-Jobson.

Yule and Burnell chose Hobson-Jobson as it was a ‘typical and delightful example’ of the type of highly domesticated words in the dictionary and at the same time conveyed ‘a veiled intimation of dual authorship’. But it was a contentious choice both then and now.

Hobson JobsonHobson and Jobson were stock characters in Victorian times, a pair of yokels, clowns, or idiots, so the title had negative associations being at best self-deprecatory on the part of the authors. Reviewers reacted negatively to the title, praising the book but deeming the title inappropriate.

Yule anticipated this reaction and kept the title secret even from the publisher until shortly before publication.

It has since given rise to the Hobson-Jobson Law used in linguistics to refer to the process of phonological change by which loanwords are adapted to the phonology of the adopting language.

Yule’s book remains in print and lists the many words and phrases borrowed from Hindi and which we are still familiar with today. Words such as avatar, bungalow, bandanna, bottle, cheetah, dingy, juggernaut, lantern, pyjamas, shawl, shampoo, swastika and typhoon. And not forgetting Y for yoga.

Yule retired in 1862 and moved to Sicily where he used the extensive library at Palermo in his study of the medieval history and geography of Central Asia. He returned to England following his wife’s death in 1875.

From 1877 to 1889 Yule was president, of the Hakluyt Society which publishes scholarly editions of historic voyages, travels and other geographical material and was was also vice-president of the Royal Geographical Society.

Yule died at his home in Earls Court, London, in 1889 aged 69, and is buried at Tunbridge Wells.

Nobody’s prefect. If you find any spelling mistakes or other errors in this post, please let me know by highlighting the text and pressing Ctrl+Enter.

4 comments… Add yours
  • Melody Steenkamp 29th June 2017

    Doesn’t every language have words which originated from another one?

    • Roger O Green 29th June 2017

      Yes, Melody – but English, and especially American English, is particularly filled with them.

  • Su-sieee! Mac 29th June 2017

    Yule was quite a man of words.

  • rhymeswithplague 2nd July 2017

    A most fascinating post, Ian! Speaking of corruption of language reminded me that my father-in-law (not Jewish, by the way) always said Shalom aleichim upon greeting and taught the grandchildren to respond with Aleichim shalom. But something went awry along the way. My niece and nephew (my wife’s brother’s kids) are now in their fifties, and somehow they never heard it quite correctly. She says “Shuma lakka!” and he says “Lakkum shula!” and they laugh, remembering their grandfather. I once made the mistake of trying to correct their mistake, but they were having none of it. They knew what they knew, and that was it.

    Again, a wonderfully informative and fascinating post. Gold stars all around.


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