Chinese Corner

The Law of Hobson-Jobson3 min read

What “ketchup” and “compound” have in common – by Eveline Chao

In 1886, a Scot named Henry Yule and a Brit called A.C. Burnell published Hobson-Jobson, a dictionary of words from Indian languages (and other Eastern languages like Malay and Chinese) being used by British in India. Or as Yule put it in the preface, “that class of Anglo-Indian argot which consists of Oriental words highly assimilated, perhaps by vulgar lips, to the English vernacular.”

The book’s title phrase was coined by British soldiers mangling the sounds they heard during a religious festival. “My friend Major John Trotter tells me that he has repeatedly heard it used by British soldiers in the Punjab,” reads the entry for the eponymous term. “It is in fact an Anglo-Saxon version of the wailings of the Mahommedans as they beat their breasts in the procession of the Moharram – ‘Yā Hasan! Yā Hosain!’” The soldiers heard this as Hosseen Gosseen, which became Hossy Gossy, then Hossein Jossen, and eventually, Hobson-Jobson, which were also the names of Victorian stock buffoon characters.

The book made enough of a mark that today “the law of Hobson-Jobson” is a linguistic term that describes the process by which foreign words are altered for adaptation into another language. In other words, it’s what happens when we try to say words we can’t pronounce.

For example, the Malay word kampung, meaning village, became the English word compound. Also included in Hobson-Jobson: pundit, juggernaut, loot, mogul, pariah, bandanna, dungarees, and ghoulish. (And here’s an amusing example from The Right Word! by Jan Venolia: “French trappers named a Texas river Purgatoire, which we dumb Americans changed to Picketwire.”)

The law of Hobson-Jobson has brought many Chinese words into English too. Some examples include kowtow (from the Cantonese kau3 tau4), gung-ho (from the Mandarin gōnghé, an abbreviation picked up by US Marines in WWII), chow (from the Mandarin chǎo, meaning to stir-fry) and yen (as in craving, “to have a yen for,” from the Cantonese for addiction, jan5, usually to opium).

And then there is ketchup. The etymology is unknown, but many believe it comes from the Cantonese word for tomato sauce, ke2 zap1). It might also come from the Hokkien (a dialect spoken in Fujian, China) for fish sauce, kôe-chiap or kê-chiap, depending on the local accent. Or it may not even come from a Chinese language or dialect at all, but from the Malay word for fish sauce, kicap.

Expat life in China gives rise to more Hobson-Jobsonisms every single day. My favorite one comes from British friends who love the Shaanxi snack of shredded pork stuffed into flatbread. It’s called ròujīamó, but the Brits in question call it Roger Moore, as in the seven-time James Bond and former narrator of the Forbidden City audio tour. Sadly he’s been replaced on that audio tour by a generic female voice in recent years. But, thanks to the law of Hobson-Jobson, he lives on in our stomachs. ∎

The Cantonese transliterations are given in Jyutping.

Eveline Chao

Eveline Chao is a freelance writer and the author of NIUBI! The Real Chinese You Were Never Taught in School. She lived in Beijing from 2006 to 2011. She's now based in Brooklyn, New York, where she continues to write about China, as well as the history of Manhattan Chinatown.