Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Hobson-Jobson

Because I have a mind like a badly packed box room, I am constantly being reminded of things. Writing the phrase "you would, wouldn't you", for example, has fired a dormant neuron into reminding me of the linguistic butchery imposed by the British army on Hindi. Over the centuries of British involvement with India, hundreds of Hindi words entered the wider British vocabulary - pundit, pyjamas, bungalow, gymkhana, cummerbund - all sorts. The soldier's vocabulary was much more affected, with hundreds of Hindi, and half-Hindi phrases being inculcated into the language.
Some of these were job-specific. The binky nabob, for example, was the officer in charge of artillery. The bhisti was the chap who carried water to the troops - like Gunga Din. The nappy-wallah was the chap who came round and shaved you in bed - before you woke up. You'd go and take a decco of the terrain (unless you were in East Africa, in which case you'd take a shufti).
But a lot were rough and ready adaptions of Hindi grammar - chota, meaning small, could be adapted into chota peg (a short drink), chota wallah (a short person), chota sahib (a short Brit) - anything you needed. Since wallah just means person, it could be stuck on anything. Members of the Temperance Movement were bun-wallahs; army chaplains were god-wallahs. Some were mangled adaptions of the original: cushy comes from the hindi for pleasant, even goolies is taken from Hindi - gooli: a pellet.
And why did I start off on all this? Because soldiers would say tum lakri, lakri tum? Tum is Hindi for you; lakri is Hindi for wood. How the babu-jis must have winced.

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