Humpty Dumpty or Hobson-Jobson? Language on loan

“Caesar adsum jam forte / Brutus aderat.” – Ronald Searle (Down With Skool, 1953)

Languages are linked. Much like the nations and peoples who speak them, their evolutionary journeys and present states represent travels across continents, cultural exchanges, even barters and squabbles for dominance.

Common etymologies and shared linguistic ancestors immediately spring to mind (e.g. the putative Proto-Indo-European; a great sprawling topic and one to discuss at a later point), but what I’m keen to look at here is what happens when living languages beg, borrow, and steal words and phrases from one another. How do these exchanges happen and what, if anything, can be deduced from a particular language’s manner of taking?

English, with its comparatively large vocabulary,* is a great thieving magpie of a language – ever the colonial, going about the place collecting shinies to appropriate for its swollen word-hoard. Prior to that, Britain’s island status left it particularly susceptible to the linguistic influences of its own historic colonisers.

*A regular source of dinner-table debate for my (French) mother and (British) father. He would declare the English language’s estimated 170,000 words to French’s 130,000 only for my mother to – rather astutely – point out that she had yet to meet an English person who used this alleged linguistic supremacy to anything near its full potential.†

†We also don’t have an equivalent to the Académie Française here in Britain, but let’s not get into the quality/quantity debate. Too many childhood flashbacks.

In this post, I’m going to look at three of the quirkier ways in which languages take on external words or phrases for their own use. These examples are not simply loanwords, words adopted without translation (e.g. café); in each instance, the adopting language alters the word to give it some stamp of its own.


In French, a calque is a tracing or imitation, and this is what is happening in a linguistic sense: a word or phrase from another language is re-created, root-for-root, into the borrowing tongue. This often happens with idiomatic phrases, such as flea market from the French marché au puces – plenty of other languages have got onto this itchy bandwagon, such as the Spanish mercado de pulgas and the Turkish bit pazarı (technically a “louse market”, that one).

Louse or flea?

The full list of English calques from French is lengthy, but in recent years French has been getting its own back – particularly when using the (mostly American) English terminology of the computer age: hors-ligne (offline), large bande (lit. “broad band”), and carte de mère (motherboard) are all calques.

Calque itself is, however, not a calque but a small-town loanword (living in a lonely world).

Phono-semantic matching (feat. Hobson-Jobson)

Unlike calquing, phono-semantic matching (PSM) occurs when a borrowed word is recreated using comparable native sounds. Japanese does this a lot, in terms such as the kanji 倶楽部 (pronounced “kurabu” – meaning club) or katakana せびろ背広  (“sebiro”, from “Savile Row” – a business suit).

In researching this I encountered the “Law of Hobson-Jobson”, which takes its name from a fascinating little dictionary published in 1886: Hobson-Jobson: A Glossary of Colloquial Anglo-Indian Words and Phrases, and of Kindred Terms, Etymological, Historical, Geographical and Discursive. (It contains a couple of thousand Anglo-Indian words and phrases, it’s never been out of print, and I want one.)

This “law” comes into effect when loanwords are adapted to fit the phonology of the borrowing language, as in the English cockroach (rather than the borrowed Spanish cucaracha) – a bit like PSM, though without the attempt at camouflage.

Nor are Hobson-Jobson a pair of stovepipe-hatted lexicographers: in Anglo-Indian English, hobson-jobson can refer to festivities of any kind but specifically the Mourning of Muharram – hobson-jobson is understood to be a corruption of the participants’ shouts: “Ya Hasan! Ya Hosain!” (Not as far-fetched as it looks: rhyming repetition is not uncommon in South Asian languages, and indeed peppers the pages of Hobson-Jobson[…].)

Homophonic translation

A fun, if a little silly, one to end on. Homophonic translation is a sort of cross-lingual pun: the same series of sounds creates different words depending on the language. Examples surface in playground games and jokes (a big one at my school involved the drowning of the unfortunate fourth feline in a boating party: un, deux, trois, cat sank).

“You’re no son of mine”

In 1980, Ormonde de Kay published a homophonic book of English-French nursery rhymes, or N’Heures Souris Rames (roughly Hours, Mouse, Oars). Perhaps he was inspired by Luis d’Antin van Rooten’s 1967 Mots d’Heures: Gousses, Rames (Mother Goose Rhymes), which includes his iconic reworking of Humpty Dumpty (un p’tit d’un p’tit – a child of a child).

My favourite one of these is Ronald Searle’s dog Latin ditty above. In full, we have:

Caesar adsum jam forti
(Caesar had some jam for tea)

Brutus aderat
(Brutus had a rat)

Caesar sic in omnibus
(Caesar sick in omnibus)

Brutus sic enat
(Brutus sick in- oh, you get the picture.)

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