Sunday, September 11, 2011

The Adventures of Miminy-Piminy and Namby-Pamby

A word of the week that manages to open the door to a worthwhile bit of linguistic trivia while at the same time sounding a little stupid:
hobson-jobson (HOB-suhn-JOB-suhn) — noun: the alteration of a word borrowed from a foreign language to accord more closely with the linguistic patterns of the borrowing language.
The term came about as a result of English-speakers hearing the Shia chant of “Yā Ḥasan! Yā Ḥosain,” not understanding it and doing their best to estimate with their floppy, English tongues. And it became popular enough that two linguists, when compiling an 1886 dictionary of Indian words that had crept into English, chose to title the book Hobson-Jobson. Today, the term gets used — in the rare occasion that people know what it means, of course — to refer to any word that gets borrowed from language A and then mashed, Play-Doh Fun Factory-style, into the confines of language B.

As Wiktionary points out, the English hoosegow, “jail,” is the result of English’s flirtation with the Spanish word juzgado, “a judicial court.” If the English word plonk, meaning “cheap, low-quality wine,” truly does come from the French vin blanc, “white wine,” then it’s a hobson-jobson too. And the same with hocus-pocus, if it did, in fact, arrive in English as a result of non-Latin-speaking churchgoers mishearing the priestly pronouncement Hoc set corpus meum, “This is my body.” Sometimes the switch is less dramatic. I’d guess that Montana, the state name, is also a hobson-jobson, just by virtue of it coming from the Spanish montaña but most Americans not being able to or just not caring to pay attention to that tilde hovering over the “n.” Yeah, Montana just means “mountain.” Kind of weird, right? When you think about it?

In her paper on the dictionary Hobson-Jobson and hobson-jobsons in general, Traci Nagle makes a point about English words that have this structure: They tend to be the vocabulary of little kids (Humpty Dumpty, Hokey Pokey) or dicks putting something down (namby-pamby, mumbo-jumbo). If this is true, is hobson-jobson childish or sneering? Kind of both, more the latter, it turns out. From Wikipedia: “Hobson and Jobson were stock characters in Victorian times, used to indicate a pair of yokels, clowns, or idiots.” But it’s debatable whether the men putting together the Anglo-Indian dictionary were commenting on themselves or other people involved in the borrowing of words from one language to another.

Previous words of the week after the jump.
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