• 4-minute read
  • 25th March 2020

Tolkien Reading Day: J. R. R. Tolkien in the Dictionary

Today – March 25th – is Tolkien Reading Day, an annual event created by the Tolkien Society to encourage people to read J. R. R. Tolkien’s books. And as fans of fantasy writing here at Proofed towers, we thought we’d mark the occasion the only way we know how: with etymology!

In particular, we’re looking at words that Tolkien contributed to the English language. So why not join our literary fellowship for a perilous linguistic journey through Middle-Earth and the dictionary?

5 Words Coined by J. R. R. Tolkien

Let us start with five words that Tolkien invented or revived, including…

1. Hobbit

Tolkien said that the word “hobbit” – along with the full first line of The Hobbit, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit” – came to him in a flash of inspiration while marking exam papers. Later, though, he invented an etymology for it: the hypothetical Old English word *hol-bytla, which meant “hole builder,” reflecting the hobbits’ habit of living underground.

A hobbit
We couldn’t afford a picture of Martin Freeman or Elijah Wood. Sorry.
(Picture: Antoine Glédel)
2. Mithril

Mithril is a fictional metal that looks like silver but is stronger and lighter than steel. It comes from a mix of mith, meaning “gray,” and ril meaning “glitter.”

Interestingly, though, mith and ril are both made-up words, too. They come from Sindarin, one of several fictional languages Tolkien invented for his novels. So Tolkien not only invented the word “mithril,” but also a fictional etymology for it based on a fictional language!

3. Orc

Unlike the words above, Tolkien did not invent “orc.” Rather, he borrowed it from the Old English orcþyrs, which meant “monster of hell.” Other Old English terms Tolkien borrowed include wearg (which became the wolf-like “wargs”) and maðm (which became “mathom,” a trinket or gift).

A smiley orc, looking friendlier than the villains of Tolkien’s novels!
(Image: panzi/wikimedia)
4. Dwarves

Tolkien did not invent the word “dwarf,” either. But he did coin the spellings “dwarves” (plural) and “dwarvish” adjective. Before The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, the only spellings used for these words were “dwarfs” (plural) and “dwarfish” (adjective). Tolkien even wrote as such, noting that his new spellings only applied in describing the “dwarves” of Middle-Earth:

In English, the only correct plural of ‘dwarf’ is “dwarfs” and the adjective is “dwarfish.” In this story “dwarves” and “dwarvish” are used, but only when speaking of the ancient people to whom Thorin Oakenshield and his companions belonged.

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This is still how we use these spellings today, with “dwarfs” and “dwarfish” standard in English. But the Tolkienian spellings are growing in popularity.

5. Tween

Compared to the other words here, “tween” might seem surprising. After all, we use “tween” now to refer to a child who is almost but not yet a teenager. But Tolkien used the same term to describe a hobbit’s “irresponsible twenties between childhood and coming of age at thirty-three.”

Admittedly, the hobbit aging process is a little different (human tweens are between eight and twelve years old). But the overall usage is similar!

Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary

As well as coining the words above, Tolkien made another contribution to lexicology: he spent several years as an assistant at the Oxford English Dictionary, writing several definitions for its first edition in 1928. In fact, his first definition for the OED is thought to be the noun “waggle.”

Later, when the OED added “hobbit” to the dictionary, they asked Tolkien for comments on the first draft. But he instead rewrote it at twice the length of the original definition, as he was never a man afraid of verbosity:

In the tales of J. R. R. Tolkien (1892-1973): one of an imaginary people, a small variety of the human race, that gave themselves this name (meaning “hole-dweller”) but were called by others halflings, since they were half the height of normal men.

And since you don’t argue with the don of fantasy literature, they printed it in this elongated form! As such, Tolkien is surely one of the few people to write a dictionary definition for a word they invented. And so, on Tolkien Reading Day, we salute J. R. R. and the impressive influence he had on modern English.

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