Tolkien and the OED: Walter Moore on The Ring of Words

Below Walter Moore, a lifelong Tolkien enthusiast, reviews Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary, by Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall and Edmund Winer, three senior editors of the OED.

First, the bare biographical fact underlying this slender volume: J. R. R. Tolkien, author of the Lord of the Rings and Oxford Professor of Philology, spent a brief period after the First World War (1918-22) working on the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), which at that time had been in progress for sixty years and had at last reached the letter “W.” Tolkien completed the definitions of some two dozen words, beginning with “waggle” and ending with “wold.”

These contributions may not seem like much to base a book on, but, provided you are interested either in Tolkien as an author or in his place in lexicography and linguistics, The Ring of Words is well worth the read.

Few of Tolkien’s notes survive in the dictionary’s records, but undaunted, the authors lead us in great detail through some of the words he defined, using them as a starting-point for a history of the OED and a sketch of Tolkien’s early life. In 1918, when Tolkien hired on with the dictionary, he had been to war and returned, and had already written the earliest forms of his Elvish languages and the first pieces of what would be published as the Silmarillion. (This evolution is laid out in vast detail in the twelve volume History of Middle Earth, compiled by his son.)

Tolkien’s definitions (and some he submitted or suggested for supplements) still appear in, or have been added to, the current (2nd) edition of the OED. Look up “wan,” “wallop,” or “walnut” to get a taste.

OED definitions note all current and obsolete uses of a word, including early literary uses, and evidence for the word’s origin. Sometimes, as with walnut, this is fascinating reading:



[OE. walhhnutu str. fem. = WFris. walnút (NFris. walnödd from Da.), MDu. walnote (Kilian walnot), Du. walnoot, MLG. wallnot, -nut, LG. (Bremisch. Wörterb. wallnutt) walnut, G. walnuss (earlier wallnuss), ON. valhnot str. fem. (Norw. valnot, Sw. valnöt, Da. valnød). The first element is OTeut. *walo-z (OE. wealh, OHG. walah) ‘Welshman’, i.e. Celtic or Roman foreigner; see WELSH a.
The solitary OE. example (in a glossary c1050) is the earliest known appearance of the word in any language. The word must, however, have come to England from the Continent, but there is no evidence to show whether it belonged to the primitive OE. vocabulary, or was introduced at a relatively late date. It seems to have belonged originally to the LG.-speaking district; etymologically it meant the nut of the Roman lands (Gaul and Italy) as distinguished from the native hazel. It is noteworthy that in the languages of these countries the word descending from L. nux, when used without qualification, denotes the walnut. In HG. the word appears first in the 16th c. (adapted from LG.); but MHG. had the equivalent wälhisch nu (mod.G. dial. wälsche nuss, wälschnuss): see WALSH-NUT.
The ONF. noix gauge, gaugue, walnut (which survives in mod. Picard and Norman dialects) app. represents a popular L. *nux gallica, a translation of the Teut. word.]

There you go — it’s a walnut for the same reason a Welshman is from Wales. Language is a funny thing.

The middle of the book traces Tolkien’s many contacts with the staff of the OED (which he usually referred to as the “NED” or “New English Dictionary” — typical of his dry humor) after he left the project. This part of his life is well known: he became a lecturer in what was then called Philology and is now called Linguistics, accepted a position at Oxford, and started writing The Hobbit (published in 1937) on the back of an exam. Considerable space is given to the connections between the words he researched both for the OED and as a professor, and the words that evolved into places and things in Middle Earth. For example, in one pivotal (for Tolkien) line in Beowulf, we have Elves, Orcs and Ents (and, as the book adds, by way of Dungeons and Dragons, Ettins, or “bad Ents”):

eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas, swylce gigantas (ettins and elves and orcs, likewise the giants)

Likewise, the mythological hero Eärendil is derived from the Old English name for the planet Venus, and the language of Rohan is in fact almost unaltered OE. The Dwarves owe much to Old Norse — the name of the dwarf Thorin Oakenshield, for example, is transliterated from a list of (human) heroes in the Old Norse poem Völuspá.

It often seems that Tolkien came out of nowhere, a direct electrifying connection from the 10th Century to the 20th, but of course there were authors who inspired him, and the book approaches the works of William Morris and E. R. Eddison, both philologically and as influences on Tolkien. Works such as Morris’ House of the Wolfings were the nineteenth century’s Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien acknowledged their impact at the same time as he criticized their self-conscious archaisms. Compared to these authors, Tolkien’s prose is quite modern, except when it is supposed to feel archaic to his characters. Tolkien had very strong feelings regarding the “feel” of dialogue — it should as normal to the reader as it would to the speaker. When archaisms appear, they are old, unfamiliar things not just to us, but to the characters. As a result, Tolkien invented modern forms of numerous dead or disused Old- and Middle-English words.

The Ring of Words ends with an appendix of all the words devised or altered by Tolkien that now appear in the OED — an impressive list that of course includes new senses of elf and dwarf, and revived obsolete words like “orc” and “halfling,” but also his invented future histories of dead Old English and Middle English words. This last part may be useful as a reference, someday, if you find yourself contemplating the etymology of modern fantasy literature, which owes so much to Tolkien.

So, again—if you’ve read Tolkien, and his “philological” use of words in his fiction interests you, this book is well worth picking up. Others may enjoy the descriptions of the danger- and thrill-filled life of a 1920s lexicographer.

OK, I made that last part up.

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