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Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary
In his magisterial overview of the history of the Oxford English Dictionary Peter Gilliver touched briefly and tantalizingly on the part J R R Tolkien played in the iconic reference work’s creation. Tolkien, he tells us, was drafted in straight from the battlefields of the First World War to bring his specialist knowledge of Germanic languages to bear on the technically demanding letter ‘W’.
I was, therefore, delighted to discover that in 2006 Gilliver had – along with fellow lexicographers Jeremy Marshall and Edmund Weiner – written a book that was specifically about Tolkien’s involvement in the birth of the OED. I was even more delighted, when I got my hands on a copy, to discover that The Ring of Words is so much more than that.
The first part of the book, ‘Tolkien as Lexicographer’ does indeed cover, in much more detail than The Making of the Oxford English Dictionary, the time from 1919 to 1920 that he spent working on such linguistically complex words as want, waggle, and walrus. Included, along with intriguing glimpses of the fledgling philologist struggling to get to grips with the OED’s ‘house style’ (he was a little too given to wandering off down interesting but not always entirely relevant byways …) are photographs of Tolkien’s original dictionary slips – his neat and highly distinctive handwriting already betraying signs of the artistic abilities which would later manifest themselves not only in his own illustrations but also in his invented alphabets.
What comes through very strongly in the first section is Tolkien’s fascination with words – not just their etymologies and meanings but also their actual physical shape.
The second part – ‘Tolkien as Wordwright’ – expands on that fascination, examining in more detail the linguistic influences that would eventually make the language of The Hobbit and – more particularly –The Lord of the Rings so distinctive. Additionally, it explores the way that he applied his philological and etymological skills, fine-honed by the year he worked on the OED, to the creation of the private languages which played such an important role in the imaginary universe he was already creating.
Parts I and II are probably only of real interest to serious word geeks (like me, for instance) but anyone with even a passing interest in Middle Earth will find Part III – ‘Word Studies’ – riveting reading.
In alphabetical order – starting with amidmost and Arkenstone, passing through Silharrows and sister-son and ending with wose and wraith – the authors list Tolkien’s most distinctive usages and coinages and analyse them closely, referring back to Anglo-Saxon/Germanic literature, the OED and JRRT’s own writings. Sometimes, the lore-master himself was unaware of the origins of the words he used.
Halfling is a case in point. Tolkien believed that he had invented the ‘Common Speech’ term for a hobbit, but in fact it had been in use in Scotland and the north of England as far back as the 17th century to mean someone half-grown – a stripling. We also learn that in early drafts of The Riders of Rohan he used the term halfheah and later half-high before finally settling upon halfling.
The Ring of Words is unfortunately now out of print, but secondhand copies are still available at a reasonable price from online book sellers via sites like AbeBooks (NB: the US edition has a different cover) – and if you have any interest at all in linguistics, Middle Earth, or both, I’d urge you to track a copy down, if only to be inspired by the fact that Tolkien accidently pluralized dwarf as dwarves, then made a virtue out of ‘a piece of private bad grammar, shocking in a philologist’ by insisting it was a technical name for his particular version of the bolshie race of diminutive miners. Ten out of ten for brass neck, Professor.
This edition: Oxford University Press. 2006. ISBN: 978-0-19-861069-4. 235pp.