In honor of Tolkien’s birthday on January 3, I rounded up this selection of words coined by Tolkien, or words that were otherwise revived or adapted for his works.
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Hobbit: Tolkien officially coined this word in 1937 with the publication of The Hobbit, but the word was the first thing he thought of and the original inspiration for the novel. In a 1955 letter to W.H. Auden, he wrote that he was grading papers when out of the blue, “On a blank leaf I scrawled: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ I did not and do not know why.”
It’s possible he originally came across it (and then filed it away in his memory for later blank-page adventures) in a list of folkloric supernatural creatures in volume 2 of The Denham Tracts (1895), a posthumous collection of writings by Michael Aislabie Denham, an English merchant and collector of folklore. The list does not explain precisely what a hobbit is.
Mithril: Etymonline claims this was coined in 1954 upon the publication of The Fellowship of the Ring, but it appeared in the first edition of The Hobbit as well: “With that he put on Bilbo a small coat of mail, wrought for some young elf-prince long ago. It was of silver-steel, which the elves call mithril, and with it went a belt of pearls and crystals.”
It’s comprised of two Sindarin (a language invented by Tolkien) words—mith, meaning “grey” or “mist,” and ril meaning “glitter.”
I don’t have a good source to back up this connection, but I wonder if it could have been influenced by the Medieval Latin mithridatum “antidote against poison,” the source of Mithridate.
Tween: Used as an abbreviation for “between” for a long time, the word we sometimes use today to mean preteen wasn’t generally in use in regard to ages until Tolkien used it to refer to young hobbits in The Fellowship of the Ring: “At that time Frodo was still in his tweens, as the hobbits called the irresponsible twenties between childhood and coming of age at thirty-three.”
Orc: Like many of the words that Tolkien used in his Middle Earth works, this one was altered from Old English. The Old English orcþyrs or orcneas was used to refer to ogres and monsters and appears to have originally come from the Latin Orcus, a word for Hell.
Dwarves (pl.): While Tolkien was far from the first to write about a dwarf (after all, very short humans were called dweorh or dweorg in Old English, from Proto-Germanic dweraz), before he wrote his books, the most common plural form was “dwarfs.” German folktakes first spoke of mythological dwarfs, though they were often more impish and were not always imbued with many of the qualities we associate with the mountain-dwelling-mining-bearded-warriors of today’s fiction until Tolkien wrote about his dwarven race.
Elven (adj.): Although “elf” as a noun has always been common and has appeared for centuries in fairy tales and folklore, this adjective from the Old English noun -ælfen, “an elf or fairy,” wasn’t in common use after the 1300s until Tolkien used it again in The Hobbit.
And of course most of the fictional names and places and languages he created for Middle Earth were drawn from Old Norse and Old English words as well. Does anyone know of any particularly interesting origins of some of the terms that appear in his works?
Note: I was unaware prior to a Redditor informing me that there is another blog post that’s similar in structure and theme to this one. I certainly didn’t mean to step on that blogger’s toes, and it looks like she used different sources than I did and found a number of other words that I overlooked. So if you enjoyed this, check out her work too.
1 thought on “Words Revived, Adapted and Coined by J.R.R. Tolkien”
Hi there Jess!
It appears that Tolkien often created “back-formation” etymologies to explain some of his Elvish names–for example, “Mordor” sure sounds like the Old English word for “murder” (morþor), but which he analysed as Mor-(n)dor, “Dark-land”. From there, he took the root mor-, meaning “dark” and applied it to “Moria” (which was named “Voria” in the earliest drafts), analysing it into the roots mor- and -îa, meaning “hole”: “dark-hole.”
Similarly, the name “Iluvatar” sure *sounds* like “All-father,” and he claimed that that’s what it means, but breaks it down instead as iluva- (“all”) and -atar (“father”) (although “atta” is the word for “father” in Gothic, an East Germanic language I expect Tolkien knew well.)
Not to mention “Avallonë”/”Avalon.”