HOW WE GOT PUKKA.

A nice piece by Josephine Livingstone about one of my favorite works of lexicography, Hobson-Jobson, which I’ve cited a fair number of times here at LH and which I’ve consulted frequently in my handy Wordsworth Reference edition—a thousand pages in a nice compact paperback that easily fits in the hand. Of course, you don’t need to have a physical book at all now that Digital Dictionaries of South Asia has put it online so conveniently (see above link), but if you do want one (and why wouldn’t you?), I would urge you to get the whole thing and not the edition Livingstone reviews, which is cut down by half (“without cutting any good bits” my foot—it’s all good bits!). At any rate, what I found most interesting about the review is Livingstone’s squeamishness about the very words so entertainingly recorded in the dictionary and the very entertainment to be derived from them:

There is something jolly and old-fashioned about this book which will appeal to the trivia-loving, moustache-twirling, Eats, Shoots and Leaves-owning, tea-dance-attending, Waugh-quoting pedant… I’m not suggesting that there is anything dubious about being interested in the etymology of “shampoo” or “sherbet” … But it is the case that patriotism and the vintage aesthetic feed off one another. If we are lazy about our enthusiasm for the British past, especially when it all starts looking a bit Henry Yule, then we risk forgetting about the nasty, violent bits. … “Hobson-Jobson” is a sweet rhyming term, and, like “pukka,” it means something. But it is also a pretty disrespectful bastardisation of a real religious practice.

Livingstone went to college in the ’90s, and I guess it shows. [She wrote to correct me—she actually got her BA in 2010.] Me, I roll my eyes at the idea that we must use even such harmless artifacts of an earlier era to parade our purportedly greater wisdom and tolerance and rub the nineteenth century’s sins in its insensible face. I really think we can enjoy words like “pukka” without running the risk of turning into pukka sahibs. (Thanks for the link, Paul!)

Comments

  1. Is pukka something that applies only to sahibs? Could you have a pukka bindi-wallah, for example? It seems to me that you should be able to.

  2. Isn’t there a long-term secular trend toward greater tolerance, if not wisdom? No need to rub the past’s face in anything, I suppose – but I like to take the “college in the ’90s” mindset as a call to be humble about our own blind spots, since we’ll never know what they’ll think we were wrong about 200 years from now.
    I went to college in the ’90s too, though, so I’m sure I’m infected with the same disease.

  3. ‘When it all starts looking a bit Henry Yule, then we risk forgetting about the nasty, violent bits’. Yule is quite aware of the nasty, violent bits, I’d say. The entry for ‘nigger’ begins ‘It is an old brutality of the Englishman in India to apply this title to the native..’

  4. I too went to college in the 90s, and still am able to appreciate things such as Kipling.
    @maidhc: At least in modern Indian English (as well as Hindi, of course) “pukka” can apply to anything, including bindi-wallahs.

  5. Isn’t there a long-term secular trend toward greater tolerance, if not wisdom?
    I don’t know what you mean by “secular trend,” but in terms of the long arc of history, no, I don’t think there is. I think there are localized outbreaks of tolerance that eventually slide back into the swamp of violence and intolerance that makes up the greater part of human history. I think tolerance is a lot easier in circumstances of general economic security and confidence in the future, but such circumstances tend not to last very long, and as soon as people start worrying about their jobs and their kids’ well-being, they start listening to people who want to blame the troubles on [local minority] or [traditional national enemy]. From Yugoslavia to Ceylon/Sri Lanka to Rwanda, the world is full of places with a history of tolerance, intermarriage, people going to each other’s religious festivals, and the like that have descended into hells of mutual slaughter. And frankly I’m not too sanguine about the United States in the coming century. I have a faint hope that over the very long term, if humanity survives, it may evolve away from the need for violent competition, but it’s pretty faint and has no relevance to the foreseeable future.

  6. On the other hand, the heat may be getting to me.

  7. I don’t know what you mean by “secular trend”
    I should have left it at “long-term” – I didn’t mean non-religious but “of or relating to a long term of indefinite duration.”
    in terms of the long arc of history, no, I don’t think there is
    I’m no expert, and maybe you’re right. You can certainly find a persistent instinct not to trust [local minority] and [national enemy] fighting against a persistent desire for tolerance. And at any given moment there are places where it’s getting worse instead of better.
    But I’m hopeful – I gather that the rate of early death from violence was much higher several thousand years ago, despite the fact that it’s technologically much easier for us to kill each other. Also, I’d like to think that the sequence 1. no one questions the morality of slavery, 2. people fight over slavery, 3. slavery is abolished and universally decried is more common than the reverse (even if slavery continues to pop up as a marginal phenomenon).

  8. There are more slaves than ever de facto, but de jure there are none, and there are no opinion leaders who justify slavery — it is universally acknowledged to be a criminal phenomenon. That is in itself a huge improvement in human morality.
    Secular in this connection means ‘both unidirectional and aperiodic’.

  9. J. W. Brewer says:

    “Looking a bit Henry Yule” sounds like cockney rhyming slang.

  10. John Emerson says:

    Yule’s “Marco Polo” is still the best, after 100+ years. Not the most correct any more, but he has a tremendous amount of supplementary material.
    And not Anglocentric or Eurocentric at all. (Marco Polo was not an imperialist, though he was an agent of the Mongol imperialists).

  11. That is in itself a huge improvement in human morality.
    No, it’s a huge (but possibly temporary) improvement in current officially accepted attitudes. Human morality is what it always has been, for better and worse; if conditions change enough to make slavery officially acceptable again, it will be enthusiastically taken up by many, many people. The more history I read, the less sanguine I am about any long arcs whatever.

  12. Hat, have you read Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature? It’s an 800-page attempt to prove the opposite case.

  13. I haven’t read it, but I am very much aware of it and have read enough about it (and discussed it enough with people) to be pretty sure Pinker is cherry-picking evidence and “proving” what he wanted to believe. Of course, I strongly disagree with his linguistic theories, so take that with whatever salt you feel necessary.

  14. J.W. Brewer says:

    Describing the peculiar linguistic usages of people (a quite small minority of all human beings either presently or formerly living) whose attitudes and beliefs will be judged morally praiseworthy by the 1990′s college-graduate cohort may itself be interesting (if only to see how and why new euphemisms and new pejoratives get coined), but it seems like the lexicographic enterprise should have a broader scope than that.
    But to be more practical, the modern multicultural UK experiences interethnic tensions from time to time and I expect there is a set of lexical items used by impolite non-South-Asian-origin Britons when they wish to express disparaging or stereotype-ridden views of their South-Asian-origin neighbors, with varying levels of pejorative intensity and subject to varying levels of tabooness in polite conversation. I don’t know much about that modern offensive/taboo vocabulary, but I’d be surprised if it had much to do with the contents of Hobson-Jobson.

  15. J.W. Brewer says:

    I do think one can take Livingstone’s point that a comical-sounding word that comes from a garbling of a serious religious text might be thought in questionable taste (and perhaps if a similar dictionary were being compiled today that example would be included but not used as the title track of the album), but it’s also not clear to me (and I wonder whether it’s clear to her, or if she’s even thought about it) what the actual South-Asian Shiite position on the question might be. They might in fact well find the transformation into nursery-rhyme gibberish offensive (if they could manage to spare the time from being, in Pakistan, brutalized and terrorized by their Sunni fellow citizens), or they might equally well find it hilarious because it would confirm their own prior stereotypes about how comically stupid/clueless the English kaffirs are.
    One can find Out There on the internet people who both: a) accept the contested etymological claim (which is an ancient one) that “hocus pocus” comes from a garbling of “hocus est corpus meum” in the Latin text of the Mass; and b) that therefore the phrase should be considered offensive to Roman Catholics and treated as taboo. I think such people constitute a fairly small minority of actual Roman Catholics, but the internet always makes it difficult to judge things like that.

  16. One can find Out There on the internet people who both: a) accept the contested etymological claim (which is an ancient one) that “hocus pocus” comes from a garbling of “hocus est corpus meum” in the Latin text of the Mass; and b) that therefore the phrase should be considered offensive to Roman Catholics and treated as taboo.
    Yes, I have seen it as well, along with many other similar claims about the alleged etymologies of other seemingly harmless words and phrases. My response to all of them is an eye-roll.

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