Saturday, June 18, 2011

Pompon bobbery

I have lately been pondering some matters connected with Anglo-Indian language, prompted in that direction not merely by current events (Abbottabad), but by my quest for William—and a spot in which to publish his remarkable story, the product of years of patient searching. So this morning I came across part of an article in Blackwood’s Magazine for May 1877 (Vol. 121, No. 739), “The Anglo-Indian Tongue,” that is cited in the preface to the first edition of his A Glossary of Reference on Subjects Connected with the Far East, by Herbert A. Giles, sometime H.B.M. consul at Ningpo, an indispensable work of reference:

“Now it is partly as a key to the shibboleth of Anglo-Chinese society that this Glossary has been designed, though to judge by the opening lines of the same article, which the [anonymous] writer tells us would be perfectly intelligible in a Calcutta drawing-room, there is no comparison between the phraseological difficulties in the way of new arrivals in the Far East and those to be encountered by the ‘griffin’ who wishes to be appreciated in Anglo-Indian society. These lines run thus:

“‘I’m dikk’ed to death! The khansamah has got chhutti, and the whole bangla is ulta-pulta. The khidmatghars loot everything, and the masalchi is breaking all the surwa-basans; and when I give a hukhm to cut their tallabs, they get magra and ask their jawabs. And then the maistries are putting up jill-mills, and making such a gol-mol (“pompon bobbery” in Japanese Pidgin-English,) that I say darwaza band to everybody. But when all is tik, I hope you will tiff with us.’

“The translation of this is:—I’m bothered to death! The butler has got leave, and the whole house is turned upside down. The table-servants steal everything, and the scullion is breaking all the soup-plates; and when I order their wages to be cut, they all grow sulky and give warning. And then the carpenters are putting up venetians, and making such an uproar, that I am obliged to say ‘not at home’ to everybody. But when all is put to rights, I hope you will lunch with us.”

Setting aside the ample evidence of poor domestic economy, not to say terrible industrial relations, it is intriguing to see that the same passage is exceedingly difficult to translate using Henry Yule and A. C. Burnell’s classic Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases (1886), another of my favourite works of reference. “Dikk, s., worry, trouble, botheration” is there, as is khansama, though listed under consumah, s., “master of the household gear.” So are bassan, s., dinner-plate; huck, hakk, huq, s., a just right or lawful claim; jawaub, s., meaning (curiously) dismissal; maistry, s., foreman or master-workman; jillmill, s., venetian blinds or shutters (external); and tiffin, s., lunch. The nearest thing to chhutti is chutt, s., or chhat, which essentially means a sort of awning or ceiling, and nothing at all like leave of absence. Bangla, meanwhile, is nowhere to be found, and nor are ulta-pulta, khidmatghars, masalchi, tallab, magra, gol-mol (though bobbery is there, but nowhere in Giles, who, after all, specifically cited it as a variant in Japanese pidgin, whatever that means), darwaza band, and tik. Presumably the problem for Yule and Burnell was whether such terms fell outside even their generously porous boundaries of colloquial usage, and, lacking any Hindi, Arabic, Urdu, or other etymological foundation, instead occurred merely as a kind of ad hoc pidgin. Or perhaps it was a consequence of the political and social changes that took place in the decade after the proclamation of the Indian Empire that, having made it into Blackwood’s Magazine, numerous semi-viable nabob terms simply evaporated.

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