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Tolkien, the _OED_, and the Love of Words,
This review is from: The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary (Hardcover)
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. He started off doing this sort of duty for "waggle", "wain", and "waist". His contributions have not ended even now, since the dictionary is still being revised and expanded; notes he made eighty years ago which were deemed too obscure (even for the _OED_!) are being considered for inclusion. Tolkien had been fascinated with old languages, a deep and mystic feeling that inspired his own writing. The authors give examples of other writers who put old words into the mouths of characters with a laughable resulting combination of modern and old forms, but Tolkien got it right, not just in using old words, but in using archaic diction to good effect. As Tolkien himself wrote in an essay "On Translating Beowulf": "We are being at once wisely aware of our own frivolity and just to the solemn temper of the original, if we avoid _hitting_ and _whacking_ and prefer 'striking' and 'smiting'."
About half of _The Ring of Words_ is devoted to specific words which Tolkien borrowed, changed, or invented. Here are examined "wraith", "confusticate", "eleventy-one", and "orc". "Hobbit" is here, of course, a word that everyone associates with Tolkien but one which he modestly said he was not sure he had invented, although he could not otherwise account for it. Indeed, in 1977, an obscure list of fantastical creatures published by a folklorist in 1895 included "hobbit" (as well as beings called "boggleboes".) Some of Tolkien's words will never wander outside of literary fantasy, but even these, the authors show, are being widely used in new fantasy novels and by role-playing gamers. Some will justly be getting wider circulation. One I liked is "staggerment": "To say that Bilbo's breath was taken away is no description at all. There are no words left to express his staggerment." And here is a word I think we all could use, "mathom". It was borrowed from a common Old English word meaning "treasure", and Tolkien wrote, "Anything that hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a _mathom_." Such bright inventions will make reading _The Ring of Words_, which is really a serious and scholarly book, a delight for anyone who likes thinking about language.