Hobbit (word)

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The invention of the word hobbit is traditionally ascribed to J. R. R. Tolkien, whose The Hobbit was first published in 1937. The Oxford English Dictionary since the 1970s has credited Tolkien with the invention of the word. Since then, however, it has been noted that there is prior evidence of the word, in a 19th-century list of legendary creatures. In 1971, Tolkien stated that he remembered making up the word himself, admitting that there was nothing but his "nude parole" to support the claim that he was uninfluenced by similar words of the hobgoblin family.

Use by Tolkien[edit]

Proposed etymology[edit]

By Tolkien's own account, the coining of the name hobbit was a spontaneous flash of intuition. When he was busy grading examination papers, the word popped into his mind, not in isolation but as part of an entire sentence, which was to become the incipit of The Hobbit, "In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit."[1]

Tolkien etymologized the name hobbit as the regular Modern English outcome of a hypothetical Old English *hol-bytla "hole builder". Within the linguistic fiction of The Lord of the Rings, the English etymology of Old English hol-bytlan → Modern English hobbit is the supposed translation of an "original" etymology of Rohirric kud-dukanWestron kuduk.

Tolkien's statements[edit]

On 16 January 1938, shortly after the original release of The Hobbit a letter by a Habit in the English paper The Observer asked if Tolkien's Hobbits were modelled after "'little furry men' seen in Africa by natives and … at least one scientist", and also referenced an old fairy tale called The Hobbit from 1904, but Tolkien denied using these sources as inspiration, and no trace of the African Hobbits or the fairy tale collection was ever found. Tolkien replied to this letter with:

"I do not remember anything about the name and inception of the hero… I have no waking recollection of furry pigmies (in book or moonlight); nor of any Hobbit bogey in print by 1904. I suspect that the two hobbits are accidental homophones, and am content that they are not synonymous. And I protest that my hobbit did not live in Africa, and was not furry, except about the feet. Nor indeed was he a rabbit…."

In 1970 the Oxford Dictionary wrote to Professor Tolkien asking for the origins of the word, as they wished to include 'Hobbit' in the dictionary. Tolkien replied:

"For the moment this is held up, because I am having the matter of the etymology: 'Invented by J. R. R. Tolkien': investigated by experts. I knew that the claim was not clear, but I had not troubled to look into it, until faced by the inclusion of hobbit in the Supplement."

In the event Hobbit was fully ascribed to Tolkien, as no earlier source was found.

hobbit n. one of an imaginary race of half-sized persons in stories by Tolkien; hence ~RY (5) n. [invented by J.R.R. Tolkien, Engl. writer d. 1973, and said by him to mean 'hole-builder']

— The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English

In 1971 Tolkien once again referred to his "invention":

"The Ox. E. D. has in preparation of its Second Supplement got to Hobbit, which it proposes to include together with its progeny: hobbitry, -ish, etc. I have had, therefore, to justify my claim to have invented the word. My claim rests really on my 'nude parole' or unsupported assertion that I remember the occasion of its invention (by me); and that I had not then any knowledge of Hobberdy, Hobbaty, Hobberdy Dick etc. (for 'house-sprites')†; and that my 'hobbits' were in any case of wholly dissimilar sort, a diminutive branch of the human race.
"† I have now! Probably more than most other folk; and find myself in a v. tangled wood—the clue to which is, however, the belief in incubi and 'changelings'. Alas! one conclusion is that the statement that hobgoblins were 'a larger kind' is the reverse of the original truth. (The statement occurs in the preliminary note on Runes devised for the paperback edition, but now included by A & U in all edns.)"

Possible inspirations[edit]

The hol-bytlan etymology notwithstanding, the name hobbit as designating a diminutive legendary creature fits seamlessly into a category of English words in hob- for such beings. The Middle English word hobbe has manifested in many creatures of folklore as the prefix hob-. Related words are: hob, hobby, hobgoblin, Hobberdy Dick, Hobberdy, Hobbaty, hobbidy, Hobley, hobbledehoy, hobble, hobi, hobyn (small horse), hobby horse (perhaps from Hobin), Hobin (variant of the name Robin), Hobby (nickname for Robert), hobyah, Hob Lantern.[2]

In William Shakespeare's play King Lear, (iv, i, 60), mention is made of "Hobbididence, prince of dumbness" in a list of diverse fiends, whose names Shakespeare borrowed from Samuel Harsnett's Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures (1603).[3][4]

Evidence of earlier use[edit]

The only source known today that makes reference to hobbits in any sort of historical context is the Denham Tracts by Michael Aislabie Denham. More specifically, it appears in the Denham Tracts, edited by James Hardy, (London: Folklore Society, 1895), vol. 2, the second part of a two-volume set compiled from Denham's publications between 1846 and 1859. The text contains a long list of sprites and bogies, based on an older list, the Discovery of Witchcraft, dated 1584, with many additions and a few repetitions. The term hobbit is listed in the context of "boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants, hobbits, hobgoblins, brown-men, cowies, dunnies".[5]

Tolkien researcher Mark T. Hooker catalogs a number of words with a silhouette similar to hobbit, including:

  • hobit (a type of artillery piece)
  • hōbid (Old Saxon: head)
  • hobaid (Old Welsh unit of measure)
  • hobet (Falco subbuteo)
  • habit (the allegorical meaning of the name of a character of a Welsh fable: Hanner Dyn; literally: Half Man)
  • Hobith (the name of one of the “home gods” in The Gods of Pegāna by Lord Dunsany)

Hooker fails to find any of them “an unambiguous source for the Hobbits of Middle-earth.”[6]

In the December 2003 Oxford English Dictionary newsletter, the following appears:[7]

"4. hobbit — J. R. R. Tolkien modestly claimed not to have coined this word, although the Supplement to the OED credited him with the invention of it in the absence of further evidence. It seems, however, that Tolkien was right to be cautious. It has since turned up in one of those 19th-century folklore journals, in a list of long-forgotten words for fairy-folk or little people. It seems likely that Tolkien, with his interest in folklore, read this and subconsciously registered the name, reviving it many years later in his most famous character. [Editor's note: although revision of the OED's entry for hobbit will of course take this evidence for earlier use into account, it does not yet appear in the online version of the entry.]"

As of 8 Nov 2012 the entry "has not yet been fully updated" in OED Online version September 2012.[8]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Carpenter, Humphrey (1977). Tolkien: The Authorized Biography. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co. p. 172. 
  2. ^ c.f. yourdictionary.com, based on OED. Archived February 14, 2007, at the Wayback Machine.
  3. ^ Bevington, David, ed. (1988). The Complete Works of William Shakespeare. 5 "King Lear: Shakespeare's sources". Bantam Books. 
  4. ^ Muir, Kenneth (ed.). King Lear. Arden Shakespeare. pp. 253–256. 
  5. ^ Denham, Michael (auth.) and Hardy, James (ed.) (1895). Denham Tracts (Vol. 2). London: David Nutt for The Folklore Society. p. 79.
  6. ^ Hooker, Mark T. (2014). The Tolkienaeum. Llyfrawr. pp. 55–74. 
  7. ^ Simpson, John (December 2003). "Words of choice: a selection of words with unusual origins". Oxford English Dictionary December 2003 newsletter. Archived from the original on 17 May 2008. Retrieved 21 June 2012. 
  8. ^ http://www.oed.com/view/Entry/87449
General references

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