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I recently came across a definition in the dictionary Hobson-Jobson. It's basically a big collection of English words and anglicizations used or found in India. The entry that's been stumping me is the one for the word 'orombarros,' a word that looks strange even when I know what it means.

Orombarros, s. This odd word seems to have been used as griffin (q.v.) now is. It is evidently the Malay orang-baharu, 'a new man, a novice.' This is interesting as showing an unquestionable instance of an expression imported from the Malay factories to Continental India.

1711. At Madras .... "refreshments for the Men, which they are presently supply'ed with from Country Boats and Cattamarans, who make a good Peny at the first coming of Orombarros, as they call those who have not been there before."—Lockyer, 28.

To me, this implies that the word 'griffin' used to mean newcomer or novice. But every dictionary I check gives me only one definition for it, which is the one about the mythical creature. So I'm very confused.

The etymology of the word provided by Merriam-Webster doesn't help me either. I thought maybe one of the roots would be useful, but none are.

Hobson-Jobson was published in the late 19th century, so that's probably the time period that you'd need to look at.

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    Is that a verbatim quotation from that dictionary? In any case, there are a few misspellings in it.
    – Joachim
    Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 17:44
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    @Heartspring I just edited it using the file you linked. There were a few more typos, and some incongruences of a more superficial nature. Even if the OPs dictionary was a different version and included the mistakes, this edit doesn't have any consequence for the question.
    – Joachim
    Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 17:51
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    See also “I Was Once A Griffin” by Richard Boyle: m.facebook.com/TheSriLankanAnchorman/posts/…
    – user 66974
    Commented Mar 28, 2023 at 18:05
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    @Florian the way to thank people who answer is to upvote their post, and 'accept' an answer if you think it is the best once that answers the question. Commented Mar 29, 2023 at 20:40
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    @WeatherVane - ok, understood. I already upvoted them all, I will accept the one from TinfoilHat
    – Florian
    Commented Mar 30, 2023 at 17:26

4 Answers 4

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The OED has a separate entry for griffin used in the sense of newcomer:

griffin, n.2
Etymology: Of uncertain origin: usually explained as a figurative use of GRIFFIN n.1, but there is no evidence for this.

Anglo-Indian.

A European newly arrived in India, and unaccustomed to Indian ways and peculiarities; a novice, new-comer, greenhorn.

The second usage sample at 1794 (the first is at 1793), with its use of the word unfledged, suggests that at least one person associated the term with the mythical winged beast:

1794    H. BOYD Indian Observ. No. 34. ⁋5    I am little better than an unfledged Griffin, according to the fashionable phrase here [i.e. in Madras].

The third perhaps suggests alighting, as of a bird that descends:

1807    J. JOHNSON Oriental Voy. 73    Every arrival from Europe..as soon as he touches terra~firma is a griffin.

But if the OED can’t say where it came from, neither can I.

Source: Oxford English Dictionary (login required)

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  • I've accepted your answer since it is short, sweet, and succinct. Thanks for answering!
    – Florian
    Commented Mar 30, 2023 at 17:27
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Yeah, it used to. That q.v. is telling you that there’s related information elsewhere in the text, so you have to ‘ctrl-f’ your way through Hobson-Jobson to the entry for griffin. We get:

Griffin, Griff, s. (also Griffish, adj.) One newly arrived in India, and unaccustomed to Indian ways and peculiarities; a Johnny Newcome.

The origin of the phrase is unknown to us. There was an Admiral Griffin who commanded in the Indian seas from Nov., 1746, to June, 1748, and was not very fortunate. Had his name to do with the origin of the term? The word seems to have been first used at Madras.
(page 303 of the book, page 357 of the pdf)

Yule and Burnell, bless them, include for us several examples. The last two are from a later edition of the dictionary:

(1794- Hugh Boyd- Madras) "As I am little better than an unfledged Griffin, according to the fashionable phrase here"

(1807- Ld. Minto in India) "It seems really strange to a griffin- the cant word for a European just arrived."

(1836- Letters from Madras) "I often tire myself... rather than wait for their dawdling; but Mrs. Staunton laughs at me and calls me a Griffin,' and says I must learn to have patience and save my strength.

(1836- Letters from Madras) "he was living with bad men, and saw that they thought him no better than themselves, but only more griffish.

(1853- Oakfield, pp 38) "There were three more cadets on the same steamer, going up to that great griff depot, Oudapoor [Udaipur]."

(1853- Oakfield, pp 62) "Ah, they don't give griffs half of it now-a-days; by Jove, Sir, when I was a griff..."

(1900- Pioneer Mail, May 18th) "Ten Rangoon sportsmen have joined to import ponies from Australia on the griffin system, and have submitted a proposal to the Stewards to frame their events to be confined to griffins at the forthcoming autumn meeting."

What's interesting about these is that some of the instances are capitalized and some of them are not, and the first two mentions explain what the word means and the others do not.

So, yes, it is very likely the case that this was one of griffin's old meanings, though it doesn't seem to have been used as a generic term for any newcomer; it was used mainly only to refer to Westerners in India. I should mention that I've never once in my life heard it used like that even though I spend quite a lot of time in India, and this sense of the word has probably died out.

(The sense of 'novice' seems to be limited to just orombarros, no definition for griffin includes this.)

It also pops up in the forward, where the authors imply that the sense was at least somewhat known in England:

A certain percentage of such [Indianisms] have been carried to England by the constant reflux to their native shore of Anglo-Indians, who in some degree imbue with their notions and phraseology the circles from which they had gone forth.

Of words that seem to have been admitted to full franchise, we may give examples in curry, toddy, veranda, cheroot, loot, nabob, teapoy, sepoy, coury; and of others familiar enough to the English ear, though hardly yet received into citizenship, compound, batta, pucka, chowry, baboo, mahout, aya, nautch, first-chop, competition-wallah, griffin, &c.

Griffin is also in the addendum and an entry for reinol, a word that it seems to be synonymous too. I haven't included those as they add nothing to the definition given above.

Also see this, this, and this book titled 'Charles D’Oyly’s Lost Satire of British India: Tom Raw, the Griffin, 1828.'


As for that Admiral Griffin theory: This seems to be referring to Admiral Thomas Griffin (who rather resembles a frigatebird). He did indeed serve in Madras, but I can't find any other supporting evidence for this. What makes me a little inclined to doubt the idea that the word itself originated in Madras is that Madras is a predominantly Tamil-speaking city, and there's no native /f/ sound in Tamil. This isn't to say that they can't pronounce it, but most Tamilian accents will pronounce words such as 'tiffin' as /tɪpən/. This includes Tamil speakers in Chennai.


It's not in any of the major dictionaries, but it is in Dictionary.com's second entry for griffin:

(in India and the East) a newcomer, especially a white person from a Western country.

First recorded in 1785–95; origin uncertain

griffinage, griffinhood, griffinism, griffinish

And from Wiktionary:

griffin: (dated, India) A person who has just arrived from Europe.

griff: (India) griffin, (white) newcomer.

griffish: (India, dated) Resembling or characteristic of a griff or griffin, a white person newly arrived in India from Europe.

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    Seems to be exclusive to new arrivals in India. Are there examples of it being used in any other context? Commented Mar 29, 2023 at 16:22
  • @DarrelHoffman - what do you mean by 'any other context'? Do you mean used for new arrivals in, say, Thailand? Or whether there are any instances of it being used as a generic term for any newcomer, regardless of where they are from and where they are new to? Commented Mar 29, 2023 at 16:24
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    The OP was asking about its use in terms of meaning a newcomer or novice - "newcomer" would not necessarily be geographically specific to just India, and "novice" might not involve travel at all. But all of the examples seem to imply Europeans new to India specifically. Commented Mar 29, 2023 at 16:29
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    What a wonderful answer. It seems likely that the Admiral's inexperience led to his name being used as a shorthand for "inexperienced newcomer" but I can't prove that and neither can the OED. Some things are lost to time.
    – Ben
    Commented Mar 30, 2023 at 19:30
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    @Ben - How kind of you to say :) It's hard to think of any other theory, and this seems the least dubious. (Also, poor Admiral!) Commented Mar 30, 2023 at 20:08
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Yes, the term griffin also griff is of Anglo-Indian origin:

  1. (Anglo-Ind.) a newcomer to India who is ignorant of Anglo-Indian ways; orig. used of freshly arrived young officers but adopted through society; also attrib.

Early usage examples:

1793 [UK] Major Child in Southey Life of A. Bell (1844) I 459: Wilks, who is on the spot [i.e. Pondicherry] and who will [...] lend you every assistance in forwarding these matters, in which, unless I am mistaken, you must, I presume, be a perfect griffin.

1807 [Ind] G. Elliot in Minto Lord Minto in India (1880) 17: I was not prepared for the entire nakedness of the Gentoo inhabitants. [...] It seems really strange to a griffin – the cant word for a European just arrived.

1824 [UK] Lit. Chron. (London) 22 May 335/2: All new comers in India are called Griffins, and they must be a twelvemonth and a day in the country, before they are considered free from the title.

Latest usage are from early 20th c.

1906 [Ind] Civil & Milit. Gaz. (Lahore) 17 Jan. 7/3: [O]nly a griffin, a tourist or a travelling M. P. would fall into the error of imagining that the gaze’'s thoughts are centred on aught loftier than paisa, bakshish and the like.

1911 [Ind] Civil & Milit. Gaz. (Lahore) 16 Apr. 10/1: The veriest griffin has heard of the intractable humour of the Abors.

(Green’s Dictionary of Slang)

From Hobson-Jobson Dictionary

  1. GRIFFIN, GRIFF (p. 396)

GRIFFIN, GRIFF, s.; GRIFFISH , adj. One newly arrived in India, and unaccustomed to Indian ways and peculiarities; a Johnny Newcome. The origin of the phrase is unknown to us. There was an Admiral Griffin who commanded in the Indian seas from Nov. 1746 to June 1748, and was not very fortunate. Had his name to do with the origin of the term? The word seems to have been first used at Madras (see Boyd, below). [But also see the quotation from Beaumont & Fletcher, below.] Three references below indicate the parallel terms formerly used by the Portuguese at Goa, by the Dutch in the Archipelago, and by the English in Ceylon.

[c. 1624. — "Doves beget doves, and eagles eagles, Madam: a citizen's heir, though never so rich, seldom at the best proves a gentleman." — Beaumont & Fletcher, Honest Man's Fortune, Act III. sc. 1, vol. iii. p. 389, ed. Dyce. Mr. B. Nicolson (3 ser. Notes and Queries, xi. 439) points out that Dyce's MS. copy, licensed by Sir Henry Herbert in 1624, reads "proves but a griffin gentleman." Prof. Skeat (ibid. xi. 504) quoting from Piers Plowman, ed. Wright, p. 96, "Gryffyn the Walshe," shows that Griffin was an early name for a Welshman, apparently a corruption of Griffith. The word may have been used abroad to designate a raw Welshman, and thus acquired its present sense.]

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Noting that Griffin as a term was also used in places like Shanghai and Hong Kong - clearly an import from India. Interestingly, both places also use the term for new race horses imported to both cities in the late 1880s - to 1940s, and is still in use in Hong Kong today - http://www.hkroa.org/en/racehorse_ownership.php.

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