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Hobbit (word)

The invention of the word hobbit is traditionally ascribed to J. R. R. Tolkien. When The Hobbit was first published, however, there was some debate over the "actual" origins of the word. This debate would continue for some time. Generally 'Hobbit' is taken as an invention by Tolkien, and his heirs hold a trademark on the name.

"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

This might be retracted in future releases of the dictionary (see below).

Tolkien himself suggested it was possible that he'd encountered the term in his childhood but had forgotten about it, only to have it resurface in his mind years later at a disconnected moment of inspiration. However, he believed this to be highly unlikely, and only recently has there surfaced even the slightest bit of evidence to support this.

Proposed etymology

The Middle English word hobbe has manifested in many creatures of folklore as the prefix hob- (which incidentally would be its modern spelling, compare shoppe > shop).

Old related words are : hob, hobby, hobgoblin, Hobberdy Dick (house-sprite, hobgoblin), hobbitry, hobbitish, 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 (Will o' Wisp)

It may have been because of this that the word hobbit appeared so "natural" that people questioned whether or not Tolkien had been the first to use it.

Alleged origins

There are a few alleged but as yet unproven earlier occurrences of the word "hobbit" in reference to a fantastical creature.

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 in 1970:

"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.

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.)"

King Lear

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). While a number of scholars have suggested that "King Lear" was an important source of inspiration for several elements of style and content in Tolkien's writings, it is unclear if there is any relationship, directly or indirectly, between Shakespeare's "Hobbididence" and Tolkien's "Hobbit".

The Denham Tracts

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 in which the word appears is as follows:

"What a happiness this must have been seventy or eighty years ago and upwards, to those chosen few who had the good luck to be born on the eve of this festival of all festivals; when the whole earth was so overrun with ghosts, boggles, Bloody Bones, spirits, demons, ignis fatui, brownies, bugbears, black dogs, spectres, shellycoats, scarecrows, witches, wizards, barguests, Robin-Goodfellows, hags, night-bats, scrags, breaknecks, fantasms, hobgoblins, hobhoulards, boggy-boes, dobbies, hob-thrusts, fetches, kelpies, warlocks, mock-beggars, mum-pokers, Jemmy-burties, urchins, satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, tritons, centaurs, calcars , nymphs, imps, incubuses, spoorns , men-in-the-oak , hell-wains, fire-drakes, kit-a-can-sticks, Tom-tumblers, melch-dicks, larrs, kitty-witches, hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, Elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tales, knockers, elves, rawheads, Meg-with-the-wads, old-shocks, ouphs , pad-foots, pixies, pictrees, giants, dwarfs, Tom-pokers, tutgots, snapdragons, sprets, spunks, conjurers, thurses, spurns , tantarrabobs, swaithes, tints, tod-lowries , Jack-in-the-Wads,mormos, changelings, redcaps, yeth-hounds, colt-pixies , Tom-thumbs, black-bugs, boggarts, scar-bugs, shag-foals, hodge-pochers, hob-thrushes, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, brags, wraiths, waffs, flay-boggarts, fiends, gallytrots , imps, gytrashes, patches, hob-and-lanthorns, gringes, boguests, bonelesses, Peg-powlers, pucks, fays, kidnappers, gallybeggars , hudskins , nickers, madcaps, trolls, robinets , friars' lanthorns, silkies, cauld-lads, death-hearses, goblins, hob-headlesses, bugaboos, kows, or cowes, nickies, nacks [necks, waiths, miffies , buckies , ghouls, sylphs, guests, swarths, freiths, freits, gy-carlins [Gyre-carling] , pigmies, chittifaces , nixies, Jinny-burnt-tails, dudmen, hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes , grants, hobbits, hobgoblins, brown-men, cowies, dunnies, wirrikows, alholdes , mannikins, follets , korreds , lubberkins, cluricauns, kobolds, leprechauns, kors , mares, korreds, puckles korigans, sylvans, succubuses, blackmen, shadows, banshees, lian-hanshees,clabbernappers, Gabriel-hounds, mawkins, doubles, corpse lights or candles, scrats, mahounds, trows, gnomes, sprites, fates, fiends, sibyls, nicknevins , whitewomen, fairies, thrummy-caps , cutties, and nisses, and apparitions of every shape, make, form, fashion, kind and description, that there was not a village in England that had not its own peculiar ghost. Nay, every lone tenement, castle, or mansion-house, which could boast of any antiquity had its bogle, its spectre, or its knocker. The churches, churchyards, and crossroads were all haunted. Every green lane had its boulder-stone on which an apparition kept watch at night. Every common had its circle of fairies belonging to it. And there was scarcely a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit!"

This is 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. Some believe this may have been the "fairy tale" that the Habit had referred to in the 1938 letter. Even assuming that Denham invented the word "hobbit" as well as many other entries, and that the "hobbit" was never a part of any system of folklore, Denham's usage predates J.R.R. Tolkien's by more than seven decades.

Oxford's position

In the December 2003 Oxford English Dictionary newsletter, in the " Words of Choice" section, the following appears:

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.]

The "19th-century folklore journal" in question might possibly be Denham's, however the source isn't explicitly named.

See also

"Hobbitting" - the act of portraying a hobbit in size and or features in a particular location or place.

References

Works cited

  • Letters 25, 316, 319 The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien
  • Marjorie Burns , Tracking the Elusive Hobbit (In Its Pre-Shire Den) Tolkien Studies 4 (2007), 200-211.
  • O'Brien, Donald. On the Origin of the Name 'Hobbit.' Mythlore 16, no. 2 (Winter 1989), 32-38.

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