Hobbit and the words of Tolkien

The Oxford Dictionary defines hobbit as ‘a member of an imaginary race similar to humans, of small size and with hairy feet; origin, invented by the British writer JRR Tolkien (1892-1973) and said by him to mean hole-dweller’.

It has been suggested that the concept came from a children’s book, The Marvellous Land of Snergs (1927) by E. A. Wyke-Smith, and the name from Sinclair Lewis’s novel Babbitt (1922) (1).

You may know that JRR Tolkien was an English professor at Oxford. However, you may not know that at the start of his career, between 1919 and 1920, he worked on the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) (2).

He worked on the W-words from waggle to warlock (appropriately). Some words, including walnut, walrus, and wampum, were probably assigned to him because they were difficult. He tried six different definitions of walrus and continued to puzzle over it for at least ten years after he left the OED (2).

In 1969 he became directly involved with the OED again when the H to N Supplement was being prepared. Hobbit entering common usage, was to be included. The editor wrote to Tolkien to ask for his comments on the draft (2). Tolkien offered a definition which was more than twice as long (2):

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.


1. Wikipedia  2. Peter Gilliver, Associate Editor, Oxford English Dictionary, June 2002 Newsletter

Notes – wampum

a. Small cylindrical beads made from polished shells and fashioned into strings or belts, formerly used by certain Native American peoples as currency and jewelry or for ceremonial exchanges between groups. Also called peag.
b. Informal word for money.