The Word ‘Hobbit’

The word ‘hobbit’ was supposedly invented by J. R. R. Tolkien. This fact both is and is not true. To explain why this is the case (or isn’t the case) we must do a bit of delving into the world of witchcraft …

hobbit1Tolkien’s book was published in 1937, but since the first part of the film has recently come out, the present moment seems like a good time to reflect upon the word that features in the title of Tolkien’s book. So where did it come from? The famous story is that Tolkien, while marking some of his students’ papers in Oxford one day, came to a blank sheet which had not a single word written on it. Out of nowhere – or so it seemed – he had a flash of inspiration, and hastily scribbled down the sentence, ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ That line became the first line of The Hobbit, published several years later.

The word ‘hobbit’ (also spelt ‘hobbet’) is recorded by the OED from 1863 with the meaning of ‘a local measure’ equal to two-and-a-half bushels (a bushel being a measurement of capacity used for corn and fruit among other things). However, this is unlikely to be the source of Tolkien’s hobbity knowledge. For the word ‘hobbit’ is used to designate a mythical creature in a work named the Denham Tracts, published in 1895, but written earlier in the mid-nineteenth century by Yorkshire tradesman Michael Denham and referring to earlier records of sprites, goblins, and other such creatures (supposedly dating back to accounts of witchcraft from the sixteenth century). Hobbits are mentioned alongside hobgoblins in a long list of beings: ‘boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants, hobbits, hobgoblins, brown-men, cowies …’ It is possible that Tolkien came across the word in this list of ‘sprites’ and other creatures, and in that moment of clarity when he scribbled down his opening line on a sheet of paper, he was dredging up the word from his memory. (He was steeped in folklore, being a professor of medieval literature and philology – language study – at Oxford.)

However, perhaps he did independently invent the word, and had no knowledge of the Denham Tracts or an earlier source which Denham was drawing on. A similar thing probably occurred with Lewis Carroll and ‘slithy': the word had been in use since the 1620s, as a variant of ‘sleathy’ (lazy and slovenly); but Carroll seems to have independently coined the word (as a portmanteau of ‘lithe’ and ‘slimy’) for his 1871 poem ‘Jabberwocky’. In similar fashion, perhaps we can say that Tolkien both invented the word and didn’t invent it: that is, he independently came up with the word, unaware that it already existed in a similar sense (though certainly before him there appears to be no description of what ‘hobbits’ are supposed to look like). These instances raise interesting questions about originality and influence in literary creation. You can read more about the ‘hobbit’ debate on the OED website.

Tolkien is credited with introducing the word ‘dwarves’ into the language: the Oxford English Dictionary doesn’t recognise it as a plural (only ‘dwarfs’). The Disney film Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, which came out the same year as The Hobbit was published, uses the more conventional ‘dwarfs’, but strictly speaking the plural of dwarf should be dwarrows or dwerrows (according to Tolkien). Tolkien described ‘dwarves’ as ‘a piece of private bad grammar'; the first edition of The Hobbit silently corrected ‘dwarves’ to ‘dwarfs’, but now Tolkien’s plural is the norm in fantasy literature.

As we mentioned in our post on the Inklings before Christmas, Tolkien’s books are more properly set in ‘the world of Arda'; Middle-Earth is merely a part of it, just as ‘the Mediterranean’ (which literally means, of course, ‘middle-earth’) is part of Earth.

So, Tolkien may or may not have invented ‘hobbit’. We’re on firmer ground in claiming that Tolkien borrowed Gandalf from elsewhere. The name Gandalf is from Norse myth, one of Tolkien’s areas of expertise and a big influence on The Lord of the Rings, and Tolkien appears to have taken ‘Gandalf’ from the ‘Catalogue of Dwarves’ in the Völuspá, a medieval Norse work which also provided him with the names for the dwarves who appear in The Hobbit. Indeed, a character named Gandolf appears in William Morris’s 1896 fantasy novel The Well at the World’s End. What’s more, Morris’s novel features a white horse named Silverfax: surely the inspiration for Gandalf’s horse Shadowfax in Tolkien’s work.

Image: courtesy of Deviant Art.

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63 thoughts on “The Word ‘Hobbit’

  1. Wonderful stuff! We could speculate a little further on a possible unconscious motivation for Tolkien’s “invention” of hobbit. The word “hob,” meaning a goblin, sprite, or some other such vertically challenged mythological, goes back to the 14th century as a short form of the name Robert or Robin, and “Robin Goodfellow” was used in the 15th century to mean a goblin or elf. This, in turn, became shortened to “hob.”

    We also know that the suffix “-et/-it” is used as a diminutive as in “rabbit” or “kitchette,” and so a derivation – unconscious or otherwise – of “hobbet” for “a small hob” is not necessarily too fanciful!

    So perhaps Tolkien’s overt etymology reveals something about a deeper unconscious etymology derived from his well-attested knowledge of languages.

    Just a thought ;)

    • Thanks, Etyman! I think you’re right: hob also appears in hobgoblin (so, if ‘hob’ denotes a goblin-type creature, then ‘hobgoblin’ is something of a delicious tautology), and is close to kobold, the Germanic goblins of mythology (which give the bluish element its name), and I think that it could well have been the case that Tolkien’s mind – steeped as it was in the language of various European mythologies and their creatures – brought forth the word ‘hobbit’ because of the linguistic connections you highlight. Great stuff! Thanks for such an insightful comment. This thread’s turning out to be rather informative indeed. IL

      • You’re right with the “kobold” link, I believe. Shipley traces “kobold” back to Proto-Indo-European *geu meaning “hollow place, or what it might hold” and from there to “goblin.” The /g/ to /h/ of “hob” is Grimm’s Law in action (First Germanic Sound Shift) so it all starts to tie up nicely. And yes, your post is generating some cool discussion points!

  2. I knew from Katharine Briggs’ ‘Dictionary of Fairies’ that ‘hobbit’ existed as a bogey name, and I wouldn’t be surprised if Tolkien had indeed read the Denham Tracts. The name may have risen unbidden as he wrote “In a hole in the ground lived…” as a resonance with the word ‘rabbit’. Or so I like to believe.

    I’ve always thought it a wonderful coincidence that ‘The Hobbit’ came out in the same year as Disney’s ‘Snow White’. I’m sure there must be some academic term for such synchronicity, like cultural resonance or somesuch.

  3. A couple of points:
    – Tolkien did indeed by writing that line. His next thought was to try to work out what a ‘hobbit’ would be like
    – there’s no evidence, so far as I’ve heard, that he’d heard about the denham list… but as a philologist and fairy tale enthusiast, he would presumably have known at once that a ‘hobbit’ was a small hob, which is to say a sprite or elf or pixie of some kind
    – ‘holbytla’ is a word Tolkien made up as a fake etymology of ‘hobbit’ (and which appears in LOTR). It would indeed be OE for ‘hole builder’
    – hobbits of course don’t call themselves hobbits – they call themselves kuduks, which has the same relation to the other made-up word kud-dukan as hobbit has to holbytla. So when Theoden calls hobbits ‘holbytla’, Tolkien is portraying him as using tolkien’s word in tolkien’s language, ‘kud-dukan’, but as being translated by tolkien using tolkien’s word in old english, ‘holbytla’, which in turn is a fictional etymology for Tolkien’s word in modern english, ‘hobbit’, which tolkien would have us believe is a word made up by tolkien, but only to translate the he-tells-us non-made-up (but in reality actually made-up) word ‘kuduk’.

    – ‘hob’ and ‘kobold’ have nothing to do with each other. ‘kobold’ and ‘goblin’ may or may not be related, we don’t know
    – /g/ > /h/ is NOT grimm’s law. that would be /g/ > /k/ – only the voiced aspirate and the voiceless stop become fricatives under grimm’s law! Grimm’s law also can’t explain the relation between english and german, since both languages underwent grimm’s law. Nor can it explain the relation, if any, between ‘goblin’ and ‘kobold’ – because goblin, if not directly derived from ‘kobold’, derives from a latin word that has /k/ in it (ie doesn’t reflect an underlying PIE /g/ that could have become /k/ in germanic).

    – unless you’ve specific reason to think shadowfax and silverfax are related, it looks just like coincidence. ‘Fax’ is just an old word for hair (or grass), so is a common enough naming element for animals, or indeed people (eg the Civil War general, Thomas Fairfax, or the founder of Port Moresby, Fairfax Moresby). The language of the Rohirrim, don’t forget, is presented as old english in LOTR, so it’s no surprise that OE words like ‘fax’ appear. [Although if it were truly OE, it would be written 'sceadufax'.]
    An ironic note: just as General Fairfax (‘pale hair’) was so notoriously black-haired, dark-eyed and generally swarthy that he was known to the troops as “Black Tom”, Shadowfax (‘dark hair’) is white…

    – being pedantic here, but ‘hobgoblin’ is a pleonasm, not a tautology.

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  7. Fascinating. Great stuff. I’ve often wondered about the word “orc.” I first came upon it as a youth playing Dungeons & Dragons, and then of course in Tolkein. My assumption had always been it pre-existed LOTR, but a quick Google search (no substitution for your excellent research) seems to indicate Tolkein invented it. Hmmmm… so where did “Ent” come from?

  8. Interesting indeed! re the dwarfs … OED has wharves, from Germanic roots, hoofs & hooves (also from Germ.), but not ‘rooves’ – which I hear spoken – tho that’s from a French root. Thanks for liking my blog btw.

  9. Fascinating. Inspiration. Does it really come from us, or is it just our subconscious regurgitating things it’s come across, like waking dreams? Great article. And I’ve got to check out this Well at the World’s End!

  10. Sometimes, originality occurs simultaneously or relatively close time wise. The pyramids from two very far away hemispheres and times. I know I have been around friends or colleagues and we within fractions of seconds of each other express the same idea/s.

    Again another great post! Thank you.

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  13. Very interesting notes on books I have read many times. And not even considered the where or why.

    Sorry about the reply above, fascinating to see the layout thinning the prose.

    Jim

  14. The more you look, the more you realise that somebody else has done it first! All of the dwarf names in the Hobbit are from Old Norse, I believe, but I find that reassuring. I usually don’t like ‘made up’ names, they don’t ring true and they are usually etymologically up the creek.
    Thanks for following my blog btw!

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  16. Just discovered your awesome blog, and am looking forward to following you. Love this post, by the way! Thanks so much for the extremely interesting info!!

  17. Very interesting on the origins of ‘hobbit’ and ‘dwarves’. Thanks!

    ‘Middle-earth’ isn’t really equivalent to ‘Mediterranean’ (i.e. it doesn’t imply geographical position). It’s a term used in Christian literature to refer to the temporal world of mortal beings, metaphysically located between heaven and hell. In Norse mythology, similarly, Midgard is the world of living men as distinct from the realm of the gods or the realm of the dead. Middle-earth in Tolkien’s Arda is the mortal part of the universe, as distinct from immortal Valinor.

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