Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Ring of Words

The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the English Dictionary

By Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall and Edmund Weiner


Bright is the ring of words
When the right man rings them,
Fair the fall of songs
When the singer sings them.
Robert Louis Stevenson, British novelist, poet, and essayist, Songs of Travel, 1896

This book interested me for two reasons: first, because I am a fan of J. R. R. Tolkien’s work, and secondly, because I’m fascinated by etymology, and my dream dictionary is the Oxford English Dictionary. (OED)

Divided into three sections, the Ring of Words covers Tolkien’s short stint as a lexicographer for the OED, examines his use of words as an author, and finally covers in depth the history of many of the more unusual words contained in his writings.

Tolkien was unique in his approach to storytelling. As a philologist, Tolkien was very much word-driven. An example of this is the word “Ent”. In a letter, he explained: “As usually with me they grew rather out of their name than the other way about. I always felt that something ought to be done about the peculiar A[nglo] Saxon word ent for a ‘giant’ or mighty person of long ago-to whom all old works were ascribed.” (p.119) From this small seed of a word grew the odd tree-herders of the Lord of the Rings. Examples of other words discussed in this book include farthing (did you know this originally meant something divided in four?), malefit, mithril, smial, unlight and wose.

In The Hobbit, the main character taunts a bit of what I always thought was poetical nonsense:

"Attercop! Attercop!

Won’t you stop,

Stop your spinning and look for me?"

I now know that Attercop is an ancient word for spider, coming from the Old English“attor” (poison) and “coppa” (spider). Ever seen a cobweb? “Cob” is simply a variant, as is “lob”. (As in Shelob, the monstrous female spider in the LotR)

I recommend The Ring of Words as a treat for anyone interested in Tolkien’s ability as a wordsmith, as well as for anyone interested in words in general.

1 comment:

Charles said...

This is one of the books I'm reading at the moment and it's wonderful because I'm fascinated by words; their history, the way they change over time and the way a word smith can ring them just right.