J.R.R. Tolkien and the OED

By Peter Gilliver, OED

Amid all the publicity surrounding this year’s release of the film of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring, it has occasionally been mentioned that Tolkien was an English professor. What is rather less well known is that in 1919 and 1920, at the very start of his career, Tolkien worked on the staff of the Oxford English Dictionary; he later said of this time that he ‘learned more in those two years than in any other equal period of my life’. Soon after my own employment on the Dictionary began in 1987, I decided to investigate just what Tolkien’s contribution had been in that period.

As one of the assistants of Henry Bradley, the second of the four Editors of the First Edition of the OED, Tolkien worked on words near the beginning of the letter W. The first entry in the published Dictionary on which he is known to have worked is that for the noun waggle; he also worked on the verb, the main sense of which he defined as ‘to move (anything held or fixed at one end) to and fro with short quick motions, or with a rapid undulation; esp. to shake (any movable part of the body)’. The great majority of the entries for which slips of paper in Tolkien’s distinctive handwriting survive in the OED archives lie in the alphabetical range waggle to warlock.

Some words, including walnut, walrus, and wampum, seem to have been assigned to Tolkien because of their particularly difficult etymologies. In the case of walrus, he wrote out many different versions of the etymology – six of which, remarkably, have survived in the archives thanks to Tolkien’s habit of recycling discarded slips by turning them over and writing on the other side. In fact walnut, walrus, and wampum were among the few entries singled out by Henry Bradley when the fascicle W to Wash was published in 1921 as containing ‘etymological facts or suggestions not given in other dictionaries’. Characteristically, Tolkien continued to puzzle over some of these etymologies long after he had left the OED to take up a post at Leeds University: a notebook survives in the Bodleian Library in Oxford containing many pages of notes on walrus written in the 1920s, and he may have lectured on this topic in Leeds.

A discarded draft by Tolkien of part of the entry for ‘walrus’:

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Other words, such as waistcoat, wake (noun), wan, and want, posed rather different challenges. Teasing out fine distinctions of meaning is a key part of a lexicographer’s job, as is the selection of words to convey precisely the connotations, as well as the simple meaning, of a word: Tolkien evidently took great pains over both. He relished the task of distinguishing the different garments denoted at different times by waistcoat (as he later grew to relish the garment itself); among the numerous drafts of his definitions of wake which survive are many colourful turns of phrase which he considered in his attempts to convey the spirit of a wake; and he was clearly fascinated by the change in meaning undergone by wan, which in Old English was applied to dark or gloomy things, and carried no suggestion of pallor or faintness. His biggest challenge, however, must surely have been want, one of the commonest of all verbs, which eventually required nearly thirty separately defined senses and subsenses.

A discarded draft by Tolkien of part of the entry for ‘wake’:

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This image may not be reproduced in part or in whole without the express written permission of Oxford University Press.

Following his work on the OED, Tolkien of course went on to publish widely in the field of philology, beginning with his substantial glossary to Kenneth Sisam’s anthology Fourteenth Century Verse and Prose (1921). However, in 1969 he became directly involved with the OED again in a very different way. At this time the second volume (H to N) of the Supplement was in preparation, and the word hobbit came up for consideration, as the evidence in the OED‘s files showed that it had achieved currency. The editor of the Supplement, Robert Burchfield, had studied under Tolkien in Oxford, and knew him well: in an appreciation published in 1989 he recorded his gratitude to ‘the puckish fisherman who drew me into his glittering philological net’. Burchfield wrote to Tolkien to ask for his comments on a first draft of the Dictionary entry for hobbit. Tolkien’s reply was characteristically painstaking: he offered a definition which was more than twice as long as that submitted by Burchfield, who subsequently published the longer version almost exactly as the creator of The Lord of the Rings had supplied it:

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.

In due course a few other Middle-Earth coinages also made their way into the OED, including mathom, orc (both in fact revivals of Old English words), and mithril. (The June 2002 update of OED Online features a revised entry for mithril, including earlier evidence of Tolkien’s use of the word.) An entry for the derivative orcish has been prepared, and no doubt others will follow: for example, our files already contain examples of the word balrog. Tolkien’s impact on the English language continues unabated.

Much of the material in this article was included in a paper given at the Tolkien Centenary Conference in 1992.