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June 15, 2004

Hobson-Jobsonism in Brazil

A hobson-jobson is my favorite linguistic phenomenon. A good example is "compound," which originally meant any union of several elements. English visitors to what's now Malaysia encountered the Malay word "kampong," which meant a group of buildings enclosed by a wall. They heard "kompong" as "compound," and gave the English word that new meaning. Another example is "gas." The Dutch chemist van Helmot used the Greek word "chaos" to refer to substances that acted like steam. English scientists misheard him and thought he was saying "gas."

On my way to Georgia last weekend, I happened to be seated next to a Brazilian colleague whom I had met at the conference last week. He asked me how long it takes to get to the "finger" at Atlanta's airport. It turns out that the English word "finger" is what Brazilians call the gates at airports (which do look like fingers reaching onto the asphalt). He understandably assumed that this metaphor was borrowed from English, but it's an imaginary borrowing--a kind of hobson-jobson.

The phrase "hobson-jobson" itself arose when English imperialists in India heard their Muslim subalterns chanting "Ya Hasan! Ya Husayn!: O Hasan! O Husain!" In their offensive way, they called this chanting the "natives' hobson-jobson." Question: Is the phrase "hobson-jobson" (referring generally to misunderstood words appropriated from foreign languages) itself a hobson-jobson?

June 15, 2004 11:09 AM | category: none


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