What I’m reading lately: The Ring of Words

Yesterday, while our power was out due to Hurricane Isaias, I read Peter Gilliver et al.’s The Ring of Words (2006). Subtitled “Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary,” this is a fascinating collection of tidbits on the vocabulary of J.R.R. Tolkien’s legendarium.

For example, apparently Tolkien coined the word legendarium, or at least borrowed it into English from Latin and “various other European languages.” (The older English term for a collection of legends was simply a legendary.)

The book starts with two longish essays on Tolkien as lexicographer and Tolkien as wordwright; then devotes half its page count to an alphabetical collection of words (a glossary) each somehow coined, borrowed, or otherwise alchemized by Tolkien.

Tolkien got onto the staff of the OED right after World War I, with the help of his former undergraduate tutor William Craigie. The work of finding quotations and deducing etymologies was split up alphabetically, and Craigie’s team happened to be working on words beginning with U at that time, so Tolkien was taken off and reassigned to the team working on words beginning with W, because it turns out that that’s where you can really use someone who knows the Germanic languages.

According to the OED (or at least according to The Ring of Words), the word cognate with nut in Latin-derived languages (noix, nuez) tends to refer to the walnut. In Germanic tongues, the cognate word tended to refer to the hazelnut; and so, if an ancient German wanted to talk about the walnut specifically, they’d refer to it as “that foreign nut,” using a prefix walh- indicating foreigners that in that context meant those foreign Romans west and south of Germany. After the Anglo-Saxon invasion of the British isles, the same word was applied to those foreigners west and south of Angle-land — that is, the Welsh. See also: Wallonia, Wallachia, Cornwall.

You may be familiar with the notion of the bear taboo. Every Northern European language’s word for “bear” is not its “true name” but merely a euphemism, designed to avoid drawing the animal’s unwelcome attention by using its true name aloud. Björn simply means “the brown one” (akin to our bruin); медведь means “the honey-eater”; lācis means “the trampler”; and so on. Even in Southern Europe, where the Proto-Indo-European root form was preserved in names like Greek ἄρκτος and Latin ursus, it’s been theorized that the PIE root really just means something like “the destroyer,” which itself was a euphemism replacing some even older, “truer” word now lost. (See also: the euphemism treadmill.)

Anyway, under the entry for “bee-hunter,” The Ring of Words cites R.W. Chambers’ theory that the name Beowulf — “bee-wolf” or “bee-foe” — is itself an epithet meaning no more or less than “[the hero as strong as a] bear.”

The word fairy acquired its modern sense of “an individual inhabitant of fairyland” quite late — “the late 14th century,” says The Ring of Words. The older word for one of these beings was of course fay (as in Morgan le Fay). Just as cream comes from a creamery, fays issue forth from Fay-ery, or Faërie. At some relatively modern point, fays became fairies and so the word for Faerie itself had to shift one place to the left and become Fairyland. (For more on fairies, see “A Parody on Iolanthe” (2020-07-20).)

The spooky idea of barrow-wights wasn’t original to Tolkien; there’s a sudden episode of battle with a barrow-dweller in the Icelandic Grettis Saga. William Morris’s translation (c. 1900), with which Tolkien was undoubtedly familiar, even uses the exact term “barrow-wight” (as well as other compounds such as “barrow-bider” and “barrow-dweller”).

Anyway, I highly recommend The Ring of Words. It’s a slim book that’s well worth its width on your shelf.

Posted 2020-08-05