Books Do Furnish A Mind, Part IV

by Ibn Warraq (July 2015)

The Reader by Jean-Honoré Fragonard

Many of the language dictionaries have their respective grammars. The most voluminous by far is M.S. Howell’s A Grammar of the Classical Arabic Language. Translated and Compiled from the Works of the Most Approved Native or Naturalized Authorities, initially published as fasciculi over a period of thirty one years, between 1860 and 1891. The final work comes to seven volumes amounting to about 4000 pages. Oxford educated Morimer Sloper Howell [1841-1925] served  as magistrate in the administrative region of the North-Western Provinces of British India from October 1862 to April 1896. Significantly, Howell dedicated his work to the Orientalist scholar, and biographer of Muhammad, Sir William Muir, D.C.L., L.L.D., K.C.S.I., who was Lieutenant-Governor of the North-West Provinces of India from 1868 to 1876. It seems there are only three surviving copies of the original work, one each in the British Library (London), Bodleian Library (Oxford), and the University of Toronto. My seven volumes are a photocopied version published by Gyan Publishing House, New Delhi, India, in 2003- perfectly acceptable copy. It was sent to me by my friend Panna Lal of Haryana State, India. The work remains indispensable, by virtue of, as Conjeeveram H Rao[1] pointed out,  “its inclusion of the discussions and debates that circulated among Classical Arabic grammarians and lexicologists with regard to syntactic rules and morphology,” also because of its covering such topics as idg?m and im?la.

Not all my reference works are so serious. There is, for instance, a dictionary of sorts of current French slang, called “Merde!” by Geneviève [sic. No surname]. So if you want to know how to say “I don’t give a fuck” in French this is the book for you. There is also Howard Rheingold’s They Have a Word for It. A Lighthearted Lexicon of Untranslatable Words and Phrases. The Chinese word “koro” apparently means “The hysterical belief that one’s penis is shrinking.” Perhaps more useful for most of us is the German expression Drachenfutter  which is “the German custom of bringing home sweets or flowers for one’s wife when one has stayed out late.” The Sanskrit “rasa” means “the mood or sentiment that is evoked by a work of art.”

Then there is the incomparable Hobson-Jobson by Col. Henry Yule, R.E., C.B., and A.C. Burnell, Ph.D., C.I.E. which is “A Glossary of Anglo-Indian Words or Phrases and of Kindred Terms Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive,” first published in 1886 at the height of the British Empire. An Anglo-Indian word was any word derived from any of the varied languages of South and East Asia, but anglicized by the British in the vast Eastern parts of their empire.

Arthur Coke Burnell [1840-1882], was a Sanskrit scholar who was also a member of the Indian Civil Service in Madras. He dedicated his time to acquiring Sanskrit manuscripts, 350 of which he presented to the India Library. His greatest work perhaps was Classified Index to the Sanskrit MSS in the Palace of Tanjore, issued in 1880 for the Madras government. He was a brilliant linguist with a knowledge of southern Indian vernaculars, Tibetan, Arabic, Kawi, Javanese, and Coptic, and thus was well-qualified to edit Hobson-Jobson with Yule.[2]

Limiting myself to a few examples of words from Indian languages that have migrated and have been assimilated into English we find avatar, aya, bangle, bungalow, calico, cheroot, cot, dinghy, dungaree, juggurnaut (but given as juggernaut in the O.E.D.], jungle, loot, nabob, pyjamas, tank, thug, toddy, verandah, also shawl (originally from Persian, then adopted in Urdu).

The word shampoo comes from the  Hind? ??mpo [shampo], imperative of ??mpn? to press [hence to give a massage]. Hobson-Jobson gives 1748 as the earliest use of the word quoting A Voyage to the East Indies in 1747 and 1748, though this travel memoir was only published in 1762, and accordingly the O.E.D. gives the latter date as the earliest printed account. Hobson-Jobson goes on to quote five other published examples before ending with the following bit of “orientalism” from James Forbes, Oriental Memoirs, vol.1 [1813] (I quote it to annoy the epigones of Edward Said): “There is sometimes a voluptuousness in the climate of India, a stillness in nature, an indescribable softness, which soothes the mind, and gives it up to the most delightful sensations: independent of the effects of opium, champoing [sic], and other luxuries indulged in by oriental sensualists.”

Even the Oxford English Dictionary defers, or refers to Hobson-Jobson to settle many etymological puzzles.  However I was disappointed not to find “tickety-boo” in Hobson-Jobson, convinced it was of Indian origin, but did in the O.E.D., which also explained its lack in Hobson-Jobson:

    O.E.D. : “Tickety-boo, adjective, colloquial       

                    Also ticketty-boo, tiggity-boo, etc.  


                    In order, correct, satisfactory.     

          1939 N. Streatfeild in her novel “Luke ”p.186:

Hobson-Jobson was published in 1886, and earliest use of tickety-boo that the O.E.D has found dates only to 1939. Others would derive the term from the American expression, “that’s the ticket.”[3]

There are two dictionaries of Shakespeare’s sexual puns: Eric Partridge’s Shakespeare’s Bawdy, and Pauline Kiernan’s Filthy Shakespeare. Shakespeare’s Most Outrageous Sexual Puns. According to Kiernan, Iago in Othello “has the longest part in the play and almost every one of his 1,070 lines contains a sexual pun. His attitude towards sex is pornographic.” Read this dialogue and then refer to Kiernan’s gloss on it:

Iago: Here, stand behind this bulk. Straight will he come.

          Wear thy good rapier bare, and put it home.

           Quick, quick, fear nothing. I’ll be at thy elbow…

           And fix most firm they resolution.

Roderigo:  Be near at hand. I may miscarry in’t.

Iago:  Here at thy hand. Be bold, and take thy stand…

    [aside] I have rubbed this young quat almost

           To the sense,

           And he grows angry.


My reference shelf on Shakespeare also holds Stanley Well’s “A Dictionary of Shakespeare” [Oxford University Press, 1998] which gives Bernard Levin’s encomium on Shakespeare’s influence on the English language:

Other reference works are the necessary encyclopedias for all researchers and writers in my field, even if they take up a lot of room on my shelves. There is the Eleventh Edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica of 1911, in twenty nine volumes. I was browsing in a second hand bookshop in Buffalo when the owner came in bringing several boxes full of books that a recent widow had wished to clear out of her house. I saw what the boxes contained, and even before he had unpacked all of them I was bargaining with him for the Encyclopaedia, which I finally acquired for $75.00 (it must have been round about the year 2001 or 2002). I see that the Eleventh Edition is now on sale (2015) on ebay ranging from $625.00 to $10,000.00. My copy is not in good condition, many of the (leather?)spines are peeling off, but nonetheless it remains a reading copy.

Despite all the evident prejudices, revealing its essentially nineteenth century world view, it has some dazzling essays by many scholars and writers who would now merit an encyclopaedia entry themselves. Sir Kenneth Clark wrote of the Eleventh Edition in his autobiography, Another Part of the Wood[4], “One leaps from one subject to another, fascinated as much by the play of mind and the idiosyncrasies of the authors as by the facts and dates. It must be the last encyclopaedia in the tradition of Diderot which assumes that information can be made memorable only when it is slightly coloured by prejudice. When T. S. Eliot wrote[5] [in Animula]

The pain of living and the drug of dreams

 Curl up the small soul in the window seat
Behind the Encyclopaedia Britannica

he was certainly thinking of the eleventh edition. And for Jorge Luis Borges, the Eleventh Edition was a source of intellectual and literary delight all his life. [6]

But perhaps the greatest homage to the Eleventh edition was paid by Nirad C. Chaudhuri in his autobiographical masterpiece, The Autobiography of an Unknown Indian, first published in 1951. The latter work infuriated many people simply because of the dedication:

To the memory of the British Empire in India,

Which conferred subjecthood upon us,

But withheld citizenship.

To which yet every one of us threw out the challenge:

‘Civis Britannicus sum’

Because all that was good and living within us

Was made, shaped and quickened

By the same British rule.

Then we tried to find out what it contained. As chance would have it, the first article to fix my attention was that on dogs….It took me a number of days to work off the excitement over the dogs and take stock of the rest of the work. When I had done that, four articles came finally to keep me engaged on them throughout the time the set remained with us. They were articles on artillery, ordnance, ships and ship-building….A small number of books, which even yet I have not seen and about which I had only read, stirred my imagination so deeply in my early college days that they may be reckoned as very powerful influences on my intellectual growth. The first two of them were Beloch’s Griechische Geschichte and Busolt’s work with the same title. I had learnt their names from the article on Greek history in the Encyclopaedia Britannica….A third book was Bernheim’s Lehrbuch der historischen Methode und der Geschichtsphilosophie, about which I had come to know from Professor Shotwell’s article in the Encyclopaedia Britannica….Appropriately enough, the eleventh edition of the Encyclopaedia Britannica continued to be my mainstay in this absorbing exploration of the interrelatedness of all knowledge, and from it, in addition to acquiring the notion of correlation, I also acquired the bibliographical flair. I always read the bibliographical notes given at the end of the articles very carefully, and came to realize that before one could begin the study of any subject the essential preliminary was a knowledge of the most important books on it.

This evocative fragment manages to suggest and encapsulate so much of the reverence for books, for learning and knowledge, the sheer physical delight at the sight of such a mass of scholarship yet to be tasted, of a boy eager to discover and explore a whole new world. It also somehow symbolizes what Chaudhuri hints at in his dedication, the intellectual and spiritual awakening of India because of its encounter with what was best in Western civilization, as summarized in the articles, bibliographies, and maps, charts, and diagrams in the smooth, white and thin pages of the Encyclopaedia Britannica.

Here is an extract from Swinburne’s spirited defence of Hugo[7] as one of the greatest poets since Shakespeare:

Here is an extract from Leslie Stephen’s entry on Robert Browning:



“Read we must, be writers ever so indifferent.” Shaftesbury, Characteristics, 1711.

[9]of the University of Notre Dame (USA).


[2] Encyclopaedia Britannica,11th Edn., Vol.4, s.n. “Burnell, A.C”. p.850

[3] William Safire , New York Times, March 25, 1990

[6]  James Woodall, Borges: A Life. New York: BasicBooks. 1996 p. 76.

[7] Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edn.,Vol, 13, s.n. “Hugo, Victor Marie”, pp.862-864.

[8] Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th Edn.,Vol. 4, p.673.

[9] Gabriel Said Reynolds. The Qur’?n and Its Biblical Subtext. London: Routledge, 2010.p.257.




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