Words Revived, Adapted and Coined by J.R.R. Tolkien

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.

Find out more fascinating information about the featured image here.

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.

The Etymology of “Arctic” and “Antarctic”

“Arctic” comes from the Greek arktos, “bear,” because the constellation Ursa Major, “the greater she-bear” (also known as the Big Dipper), is always visible in the northern polar sky. “Antarctic,” then, means “opposite the bear.”

Accordingly, polar bears reside at the north pole but not the south, making the Antarctic the land without bears in more ways that one.

The Etymology of “Resolution”

Resolution’s earliest 14th century definition drew from its direct Latin source resolutionem (perhaps via the Old French resolution), which meant “a process of reducing things into simpler forms,” drawing from the notion of resolvere as a word for “loosen” or “untie.” Like the English word today, resolvere held a diverse array of additional meanings as well: “unyoke, undo; explain; relax; set free; make void, dispel.” Its root is the PIE leu- “to loosen, divide, cut apart.” “Solve” without the intensifying prefix has also carried similar meanings as it evolved.

The reductive/simplifying definition of “resolution” is still in use today, mostly via the notion of “solution” in scientific settings, though it is otherwise less common than other meanings, and most often in the form “resolve.” Notably, we see it in one of Hamlet’s existential soliloquies: O, that this too too solid [or sullied] flesh would melt, / Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew. (Here “resolve” is used to mean “dissolve, reduce to liquid.”)

In the 1540s, the word came to suggest the solving of a problem, first in terms of mathematical problems and later in terms of the resolution of a conflict (or, say, a political resolution or bill). The sense of “resolute” meaning firm or determined arose simultaneously, the notion being that one who is resolute has solved any dilemma and come to a firm decision. The optical sense of resolution (photo resolution, for example) arose in the 1860s, and also comes from this concept of fixedness and determination, suggesting a clear and unmuddled image, though this meaning is also thought to draw upon the concept of “resolving” as a word for separating something into components (as in dpi or pixels).

The word’s use in relation to New Year’s arose in the 1780s (or perhaps earlier) and suggested a firm plegde or decision to better oneself in the new year. As with many holiday traditions, New Year’s resolutions are rooted in religion. Babylonians were thought to be some of the first to make such resolutions, making promises to the gods to return borrowed objects and pay debts at the start of each year. Drawing from this earlier tradition, Romans also made promises to the two-faced god Janus, namesake of the month January. The Roman practice is the most the source of our contemporary practice of setting resolutions in the new year. The earliest New Year’s resolutions in English-speaking cultures tended to be rooted in piety and religious promises.

During the Medieval Era, there was yet another New Years-resolution tradition, known as the Vow of the Peacock, that has fallen out of practice in modern times. In Charles Dickens’ periodical All the Year Round, he wrote about the Vow of the Peacock, explaining that peacocks (and occasionally pheasants) represented “by the splendour and variety of their colours, the majesty of kings during the middle ages”—and were thought to be “the peculiar diet of valiant knights and heart-stricken lovers.” Therefore, in the new year, a great feast was held with a roasted peacock as its centerpiece. Each knight would make a vow of chivalry to the bird, after which it would be carved and divided among all those present.

[Portions of this originally appeared in my work on Writer’s Digest.]

The Etymology of “Shiver”

The word “shiver” originally referred to a small piece, fragment, or splinter of something, or to the act of breaking something into many small pieces. Hence, “shiver my/me timbers” refers to the splintering of wooden ships upon rough seas.

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The “splinter” sense of “shiver” arose c. 1200 as both a noun and a verb, likely related to Middle Low German schever schiver, also meaning “splinter,” from the Old High German scivero, from Proto-Germanic skif- “split.”

You’ll notice “shiver’s” relation to the contemporary word “shiv,” an often-makeshift razor or knife used as a weapon.

The trembly sense of “shiver” possibly comes from an entirely different origin. Arising around 1400 as an alteration of chiveren (“shake”), it may come from the Old English *ceafl*, meaning “jaw,” suggesting chattering teeth.

“Shiver me/my timbers” is a fictional declaration that likely arose after the Golden Age of Pirates (1650 – 1730).

Although the Oxford English Dictionary says the expression “shiver my timbers” probably first appeared in a published work by Frederick Marryat called Jacob Faithful (1835), the phrase actually appeared in print as early as 1795, in a serial publication called “Tomahawk, or Censor General”… In the words of the “old sailor”: “Peace? Shiver my timbers! what a noise ye make – ye seem to be fonder of peace than ye be of quiet.”

Naturally, the phrase was widely popularized by Long John Silver in Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island.

“My timbers!” alone, however, was supposedly an actual nautical oath that was euphemistic in nature, as so many idioms are.


Edit: Clarity, better spacing.

The Etymology of “Falcon”

“Falcon” is from the Latin falx, “curved blade, pruning hook, sickle, war-scythe.” For many years “falcon” referred to females while “tercel” (Latin tertius, “third”) referred to males, perhaps because males are a third smaller or because a third egg in the nest was thought to always produce a male.

“Falcon” arose in 13th-century English as faucon, from the Old French word of the same spelling. The Late Latin word for the bird was falconem, which drew from falx, with the bird thought to be named after the curved blade due to the shape of its talons, beak, or spread wings (or perhaps all three).

It’s possible that the Latin word falx was adopted from Germanic, wherein the word meant “gray bird,” from the PIE root pel-, meaning “pale.” The Germanic word is older than the Latin word, which supports this idea. However, that may not be the case, since the practice of falconry was adopted by the Romans from the East, and Germanic cultures adopted it from the Romans.

Falconry is an ancient art, first recorded in Mesopotamian texts from 2000 BCE. It was also a popular hunting method and sport in the Mongolian Empire. It was in English falconry texts from the 1600s that the word “falcon” was used to refer to females and “tercel” or “tiercel” was used to refer to males. Similarly, “tercel” was used to refer to male hawks, while “hawk” or “hawke” was used to refer to female hawks.

featured image by Georgina Steytler on Unsplash

The Etymology of “Chauvinism”

“Chauvinism” comes from the name of Nicolas Chauvin, one of Napoleon’s most zealous and vocal supporters, even long after the Napoleonic Wars concluded. However, he may have been an entirely fictional, blindly nationalistic Bonapartist character who appeared in vaudeville and stories from the mid-1800s.

The word chauvinism is defined today as excessive and aggressive nationalism, or blind and exaggerated patriotism. It is often associated with the phrase “male chauvinism,” used to describe a masculine-centric worldview, but it did not earn this gendered connotation until it was appropriated by members of 1960s feminist movements.

The word originally arose in the 1830s and comes directly from the French chauvinisme, which was eponymous with a fellow named Nicolas Chauvin.

Chauvin was said to have been one of the most loyal soldiers in Napoleon’s Grande Armée. Purportedly born in Rochefort c. 1780, Chauvin enlisted at age 18 and served with such dedication that Napoleon himself presented him with a Sabre of Honor. Long after the Napoleonic Wars concluded with the fall of Napoleon’s empire, Chauvin supposedly remained an absurdly staunch Bonapartist nationalist, loudly touting his blind and zealous devotion to the cause for the rest of his life, which resulted in ridicule from most people in Restoration France. In the collective imagination of the time, he exemplified war glorification and the dramatically pro-military attitude that was prevalent among Napoleon’s soldiers after the war.

But the most fascinating thing about Nicholas Chauvin is that he may not have existed at all. There are no concrete historical records of his existence, and it’s most likely that his supposed exploits were actually those of a variety of other fervent Bonapartists.

Chauvin was, however, a character/caricature that appeared in French vaudeville as a humorous representation of hyperbolic, fanatical nationalism. In narratives from the time, the character also filled the role of the miles gloriosus (“braggart soldier”), a stock character trope from Greek comedy characterized by unwarranted boastfulness.

The Etymology of “Tarnation”

Widely popularized among contemporary folk by the Warner Bros. character Yosemite Sam (e.g., “What in tarnation…?!”), the word “tarnation” was originally a 1784 American English derivative of “darnation,” which was, predictably enough, a milder way of expressing the profanity “damnation.” The “t” in tarnation was influenced by “tarnal,” yet another mild 18th century profanity derived from the phrase “by the Eternal,” which was used as such: “Joe paid a tarnal high price for his dillydallying.”