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 …
Tolkien’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.