Henry Yule's

The following review will be of greatest interest to people who share
 my fascination with quirky tidbits from Eurasian history.

Henry Yule's four volumes on Marco Polo and the other European travellers to the East are among my favorite scholarly books, so even though I have no particular interest in Anglo-India, when I found out that Hobson-Jobson was cheap and available, I snapped it up. I found lots of stuff interesting to me, and anyone interested in the histories of dress, textiles, horticulture, cuisine, ships and boats, or coinage will also find a lot here.

Ordinary English words of Indian, Malay, Persian, or Arabic origin

Bandanna, candy, carboy, cash, chit, cot, cummerbund, dinghy, ghoul, loot, stevedore, tank. (And also gunny, as in "gunny sack "-- an article which probably no longer exists).

 The most surprising of these is "tank", which comes from the Gujerati tānk'h, which means "reservoir". All subsequent uses, including the military one, trace back to the Gujerati, first attested in 1498.

Compound in the sense of "enclosure around a house" comes from the Malay kampung, rather than being derived from the French com + poner as the other senses of the word are.

Rare English dialect word unexpectedly adopted into Hindi

Galleece, meaning "suspenders", from the English "gallowses" or "galluses".

Words which you're probably wrong about

Shampoo originally meant "massage" (possibly combined with prostitution), not just hairwashing. Pariah does not refer to the so-called untouchables, outcastes, or Dalits, but to the lowest castes within the caste system. The word orangutang was never used by  Malays to refer to that animal, which they call mias; that meaning of the term (which normally means "jungle people" or "savages") was introduced into the Malay language by Westerners.

A word which Yule was probably wrong about

Contra Yule's suggestion, sackcloth probably doesn't come from the Persian Sakkalat, although a version of the Persian word is seen in Chaucer. The OED frequently used Yule's work, but did not pick up on this item.  (More here)

Five Mongol words in use in British India (via Persian)

Daroga "a minor official" (from darugachi, "a provincial governor"); oordoo, now Urdu (from ordos, "center of government"); bagatur, "a loudmouthed bully" (from bagatur, "hero"); Tomaun "a coin worth 10,000 [nominal] dinars" (from toman, "10,000"); nokar, "servant" (from noker, "sworn companion, retainer"). The word bagatur was used by William Makepeace Thackeray, who had Anglo-Indian family connections (one of the later of whom, apparently, is today's most notorious Hindu nationalist.)

However, Huzzara (now Hazara), the name for the ethnic Mongols of Afghanistan, is not a Mongol word, though it does trace back to the Mongols. It's the Persian word meaning "thousand" and refers to a Mongol Persian socio-military unit of that size. But the Mongol word would have been mingqan.

Some words with long histories

Even in the XIXc the Portuguese were called Firinghee or "Franks", a word tracing back to the Crusades; sometimes this word was used invidiously for all Europeans. Yule (supported by the OED 1st ed.) claims that Druggerman (dragoman), a word in many Middle Eastern and European languages meaning "translator", can be traced back to  Assyrian. (The OED also traces the common word sack back to the Assyrian.)

Some interesting non-linguistic tidbits

Yule mentions witnessing synchronized flashing by thousands of fireflies in a tree. He describes crocodiles snapping up flying-foxes (bats) who are flying close to the river surface to dip up water with their tongues. He describes a peculiar masochistic form of worship almost identical the the sundance of the plains Native Americans. He briefly mentions the  devadāsī temple prostitutes, of South India. And Yule speculates, as I have, that the similiarities in name and form between the Mediterranian Turkish caique and the Inuit kayak, might mean that there is a real historical relationship between the two boats.

Books by Henry Yule


Yule's translation is still the place to start for Marco Polo. He has lots of supplementary material about the Venetian navy, the military uses of music during the period, etc., etc. Pelliot's translation and Notes on Marco Polo should have superseded Yule, but they are almost impossible to find, and the Notes are also almost impossible to read. 


Cathay and the Way Thither collects a lot of fascinating stuff, but much of it has since come out in significantly better editions.

Hobson-Jobson: 1000 pages for $7.99

The Travels of Marco Polo, 3rd revised edition: 2 vols, 1300 pages for $48.00

Cathay and the Way Thither: 2 vols., 1000 pages for $40.00

(Altogether, 3300 pages for less than $100.00: 33 pages for a dollar.)


I am emersonj at gmail dot com.

Original materials copyright John J Emerson

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