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The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary [Hardcover]

Peter Gilliver , Jeremy Marshall , Edmund Weiner
4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)

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Book Description

July 1, 2006 0198610696 978-0198610694 First Edition
Tolkien's first job, on returning home from World War I, was as an assistant on the staff of the OED. He later said that he had "learned more in those two years than in any other equal part of his life." The Ring of Words reveals how his professional work on the Oxford English Dictionary influenced Tolkien's creative use of language in his fictional world.
Here three senior editors of the OED offer an intriguing exploration of Tolkien's career as a lexicographer and illuminate his creativity as a word user and word creator. The centerpiece of the book is a wonderful collection of "word studies" which will delight the heart of Ring fans and word lovers everywhere. The editors look at the origin of such Tolkienesque words as "hobbit," "mithril, "Smeagol," "Ent," "halfling," and "worm" (meaning "dragon"). Readers discover that a word such as "mathom" (anything a hobbit had no immediate use for, but was unwilling to throw away) was actually common in Old English, but that "Mithril," on the other hand, is a complete invention (and the first "Elven" word to have an entry in the OED). And fans of Harry Potter will be surprised to find that "Dumbledore" (the name of Hogwart's headmaster) was a word used by Tolkien and many others (it is a dialect word meaning "bumblebee").
Few novelists have found so much of their creative inspiration in the shapes and histories of words. Presenting archival material not found anywhere else, The Ring of Words offers a fresh and unexplored angle on the literary achievements of one of the world's most famous and best-loved writers.

Editorial Reviews


"The connection between his time spent mired in the drudgery of lexicography, his deeply felt and lifelong passion for philology, and the consequent meticulous craftsmanship of his writing, is all impeccably demonstrated in this fascinating assessment of Tolkien's life as one of England's most distinguished wordwrights. Anyone enthralled by the story of the English language will be captivated by this account of an unforgettable man's half-forgotten first achievements."--Simon Winchester, author of The Professor and the Madman and The Meaning of Everything: The Story of the Oxford English Dictionary

"Tolkien the scholar of language and Tolkien the author of fantasy fiction were inseparable: the authors explore this subject further than has been done before. But it is their extensive notes on the etymology and meaning of individual words used by Tolkien which readers will welcome most. The Ring of Words is an excellent addition to the shelf of best books about Tolkien, warmly recommended."--Wayne G. Hammond, author of J.R.R. Tolkien: A Descriptive Biography and co-author of The Lord of the Rings: A Reader's Companion

About the Author

Peter Gilliver is an Associate Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary and is also working on a history of the OED. Jeremy Marshall is an Associate Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary and co-author of Questions of English. Edmund Weiner is Deputy Chief Editor of the Oxford English Dictionary. He has written several books on English grammar and usage and teaches an annual course in the history of English.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press; First Edition edition (July 1, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0198610696
  • ISBN-13: 978-0198610694
  • Product Dimensions: 8.6 x 5.4 x 0.7 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.8 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.7 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (15 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,228,569 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

4.7 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
53 of 54 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fine Addition To Tolkien Scholarship July 13, 2006
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This short (229 pages plus bibliography and index) but highly important work will become an absolute necessity for all Tolkien admirers.

There are three sections. The first deals with Tolkien's brief but productive period working on the Oxford English Dictionary. The authors, who are all Editors of the OED, were able to examine the actual scraps of paper on which Tolkien wrote drafts for definitions and etymologies of words (primarily beginning with W) to be included in the OED. To an outsider such work could seem tedious in the extreme, but since the authors are as fascinated by the origins and developments of words as Tolkien was himself, they help us see how intriguing such work can be. (Indeed, Tolkien was so enthusiastic that many of his definitions had to be severely edited by the then Editor, who thus gained time and space at the expense of some great scholarship.)

The second section, on Tolkien as wordwright, I found particularly interesting. Having been an enthusiastic student of Middle earth since the age of 12 in 1969, I am very familiar with Tolkien's enormous vocabulary and love of words, and this section brings new light to Tolkien's deep knowledge of Anglo-Saxon and other ancient tongues, and to his readings of such authors as William Morris and H.R. Haggard, among many others. Here the reader recognizes anew that Tolkien's chosen career of philology was not just his job, but also his passion.

The third section is devoted to word studies and gives short histories of some of the terms, like Middle earth, Hobbit, mathom, etc, which Tolkien used throughout his writings. These are sometimes archaic terms like nuncheon and sometimes words developed by Tolkien himself such as eucatastrophe and legendarium, which have now entered the English language.

This is a scholarly but highly accessible work which will be appreciated by Tolkien scholars and anyone else who loves the English language.
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26 of 26 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tolkien, the _OED_, and the Love of Words September 13, 2006
Only those in a persistent neurovegetative state could be unaware of _The Lord of the Rings_, J. R. R. Tolkien's massive epic and the estimable films it inspired. Tolkien has won acclaim as the most beloved author of the twentieth century, and his mythic inventions of lands and creatures are read all over the world, and not just by young people devoted to fantasy. Tolkien is less well known as a sub-editor to a work at least as influential, the _Oxford English Dictionary_. In fact, he was carried off the fields of World War One with trench fever, and wound up in Oxford in 1916, when he was 24 years old. He joined the dictionary's staff for two years, and said, "I learned more in those two years than in any equal period of my life." What he learned was dictionary-making and the lexicographer's way looking at the history of certain words, but his word endeavors also fired his imagination. In _The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary_ (Oxford University Press), Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner have examined Tolkien's contributions to the _OED_, and they are in a perfect position to do so: they are among the current editors of the dictionary themselves. They wanted to write the book "to examine Tolkien's word-hoard with a lexicographer's eye." Anyone interested in either the history of the imaginary Middle Earth or the great dictionary will find richness here.

Years later Tolkien wrote of the job offered to him as "kindness... to a jobless soldier in 1918". Most of the dictionary, issued alphabetically, had been done, and Tolkien was assigned as subeditor for a portion of words beginning with W, sorting each word into its subsenses, drafting definitions for each, and researching the etymology.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tolkien as Lexicographer and Wordsmith November 3, 2006
This is a short but fasinating volume on Tolkien's time working on the Oxford English Dictionary project (then called the N.E.D. -- the New English Dictionary). The book opens with a few short chapters on Tolkien's time at the O.E.D., a discussion of some of the well-known editors he worked with (e.g., Henry Bradley, C.T. Onions, William Craigie, et al.), and some of the entries (in the W fascicle) that Tolkien is known to have worked on. This section of the book is rather like an extended version of Peter Gilliverh's 1992 article, "At the Wordface: J.R.R. Tolkien's Work on the Oxford English Dictionary" (published in the Proceedings of the Tolkien Centenary Conference, but now OOP).

The second, and much larger, part of the book is a systematic (if by necessity incomplete) look at many of the words Tolkien's invented or resurrected from obscurity. I won't take the time to enumerate them all here. But suffice it to say that it was fascinating reading, even for an already knowledgable person like myself.

A terrific addition to the library of any admirer or student of Tolkien's life and works.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Running rings around the words August 2, 2006
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I really enjoyed this book. I learnt an enormous amount about my own language but also about many other north European languages. Tolkien was such an imaginative man. I live with a Swedish woman and am familiar with some Swedish words, terms and concepts and I found myself saying 'Aha!' all the way through the book
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Combining scholarship and fiction writing June 15, 2010
The opening chapter looks at Tolkien's career with the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary. Tolkien, due to his connections with William Craigie and Joseph Wright, started with the dictionary in late 1918 or early 1919. He worked on writing entries on words beginning with "w". Due to his strengths in Old English and Old Norse, he was assigned to the w-words since many have Germanic roots. His work on the OED led to his compilation of A Middle English Vocabulary (1922).

"Tolkien as Wordwright" introduces philology--at least as it was practiced in the first half of the 20th century--and then looks at Tolkien's work as a philologist. The approach the authors take look at both Tolkien's academic work and his fiction. While one could balk at this approach, it is clear that Tolkien's interest in the history and etymology of Germanic languages, led to his creation of the Elvish languages and a host of words used throughout the Lord of the Rings. While some Old English scholars have lamented that Tolkien spent too much time with his Middle Earth, the authors clearly show that much of his academic training and work is what makes the Lord of the Rings unique.

Also discussed in the second chapter is the use of archaic language in modern literature. Given its use in modern fantasy, this section deserved its own chapter. The tradition started with George Dasent in the 19th century during the nationalistic revivals of medieval literature and folklore. William Morris followed. With Morris, the authors argue, the reader is awash with an archaized dialect that is a cross between the King James Bible and Middle English (70). Tolkien, the authors argue, had a much more judicious use of archaic and archaicized words.
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Most Recent Customer Reviews
5.0 out of 5 stars Where did Tolkien get that word?
Mostly dealing with unusual words Tolkien included in his writings, but also with some of the words he worked on for the Oxford English Dictionary. Read more
Published 11 days ago by David Batchelor
5.0 out of 5 stars Tolkien's Words
As a Tolkien fan of 45 years, I found this book highly informative and most enjoyable to read. I was never interested in philology because I thought the subject was too dry. Read more
Published 3 months ago by cprkwy8
5.0 out of 5 stars Great!
It arrived perfectly. I needed it because I am doing a specialist course about translation and interpreting, so it helps a lot. Thanks.
Published 5 months ago by Sonaly
4.0 out of 5 stars Only for lovers of the OED
It is quite dense and goes into quite a bit of detail on the process of the OED, which would only interest an OED fan (like me). Read more
Published 5 months ago by Stefanie Hailperin
5.0 out of 5 stars The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary
I bought The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary for my Tolkien fanatic and creative writer. He LOVES it. In two months, he's probably read it five times.
Published on June 8, 2012 by Joyfulness
5.0 out of 5 stars The Ring of Words
I was having difficulty finding this book, but I most definitely found it on Amazon! I love Tolkien and had only been able to find so much information on his work with the Oxford... Read more
Published on July 7, 2010 by Amazon Customer
5.0 out of 5 stars for philologists & Tolkienphiles
I 'knew' Tolkien was a scholar, but this slim book really makes clear what a remarkable depth of knowledge the Professor had about the way words are formed and develop over time. Read more
Published on June 12, 2010 by Ann Onimus
4.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating information for those who love word origins
This book is in two parts. The first describes Tolkien's work on the Oxford English Dictionary and how he was able to make good use of his special philological skills. Read more
Published on September 6, 2007 by Swim, Eat, Play
5.0 out of 5 stars Tolkien
Great info behind the man and his imagination. Highly recommend this book for your own Tolkien Library.
Published on May 12, 2007 by Wanda Mallett
5.0 out of 5 stars Why, Tolkien Himself Might Have Liked It!
Read this and then shelve it next to your of Tom Shippey's Road to Middle-earth. Tolkien's imagination was uniquely, of all the great fantasy writers, preoccupied with words and... Read more
Published on January 24, 2007 by Extollager
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