When J.R.R. Tolkien Worked for the Oxford English Dictionary and “Learned More … Than Any Other Equal Period of My Life” (1919–1920)

When J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings appeared in the mid-1950s, its first crit­i­cal read­ers held some diverg­ing views on the books’ qual­i­ty. On the one hand, there was praise for the revival of fan­ta­sy for grown-ups, and com­par­isons to great epics of the past. On the oth­er hand, Tolkien’s prose was exco­ri­at­ed for its wordi­ness, length, and seem­ing­ly inex­haustible obses­sion with obscu­ri­ties. Both per­spec­tives seemed to miss some­thing impor­tant. Yes, Tolkien drew lib­er­al­ly from epics of the past such as the Norse Sagas and cre­at­ed a world as ful­ly-real­ized as any in ancient mythol­o­gy, build­ing in decades what took cen­turies to devel­op.

It’s also true that Tolkien wrote in a thor­ough­ly unusu­al way — unfa­mil­iar as he was with the con­ven­tions of con­tem­po­rary lit­er­ary prose. But his style did not only derive from his work as a schol­ar of Anglo-Sax­on lit­er­a­ture. For all of the dis­cus­sion of Tolkien’s ency­clo­pe­dic tech­nique, no one seemed to note at the time that the author had, in fact, invent­ed for him­self (with apolo­gies to James Joyce) a new genre and way of writ­ing, a kind of ety­mo­log­i­cal fan­ta­sy, a kind of writ­ing he learned while work­ing on the Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary, that august cat­a­logue of the Eng­lish lan­guage which first appeared in full in 1928 — in ten vol­umes after fifty years of work.

The Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary (OED) remains an indis­pens­able ref­er­ence for schol­ars of lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture, but it is not itself a typ­i­cal aca­d­e­m­ic text. It is a com­pendi­um, a mis­cel­lany, a descrip­tive map and time­line track­ing how Eng­lish evolves; it is the ulti­mate ref­er­ence work, a work of philol­o­gy, a dis­ci­pline that had fall­en out of fash­ion by the time of The Lord of the Rings. The first edi­tion of the OED, begun in 1878 (five years into the pro­posed time­line, the edi­tors had only reached the word “ant”), con­tained around 400,000 words. Between the years 1919 and 1920, Tolkien was respon­si­ble for the words between wag­gle and war­lock. He would lat­er say he “learned more in those two years than in any oth­er equal peri­od of my life.”

The OED estab­lish­es lin­guis­tic his­to­ries by cit­ing a word’s appear­ances in lit­er­a­ture and pop­u­lar press over time, trac­ing deriva­tions from oth­er lan­guages, and trac­ing the evo­lu­tion, and extinc­tion, of words and mean­ings. After his return from World War I, the future nov­el­ist found him­self work­ing under found­ing co-edi­tor Hen­ry Bradley, labor­ing away on words like wal­nut, wal­rus, and wampum, which “seem to have been assigned to Tolkien because of their par­tic­u­lar­ly dif­fi­cult ety­molo­gies,” notes the OED blog. These entries would lat­er be sin­gled out by Bradley as “con­tain­ing ‘ety­mo­log­i­cal facts or sug­ges­tion not giv­en in oth­er dic­tio­nar­ies.’ ”

The expe­ri­ence as an OED lex­i­cog­ra­ph­er pre­pared Tolkien for his life­long career as a philol­o­gist. It also informed his lit­er­ary tech­nique, argue Peter Gilliv­er, Jere­my Mar­shall, and Edmund Wein­er, the authors of Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary and for­mer OED edi­tors, all. The authors show how Tolkien drew the lan­guage of his books direct­ly from his ety­mo­log­i­cal research. For exam­ple, “for decades it was assumed that he was being char­ac­ter­is­ti­cal­ly mod­est” when he declined to claim cred­it for the inven­tion of the word “hob­bit.” As it turned out, “an obscure list of myth­i­cal beings, pub­lished in 1895” came to light in 1977, includ­ing the word “ ‘hob­bits’, along with such oth­er irre­sistible crea­tures as ‘bog­gle­boes’ and gal­lytrots,” writes Kel­ly Grovi­er at The Guardian.

Tolkien’s rela­tion­ship to ety­mol­o­gy in The Hob­bit, The Lord of the Rings, and every oth­er lengthy piece of writ­ing Mid­dle Earth-relat­ed goes far beyond dig­ging up obscure words or coin­ing new ones. He learned to think like a lex­i­cog­ra­ph­er. As the authors write, “in describ­ing his own cre­ative process­es, Tolkien often com­ments on how the con­tem­pla­tion of an indi­vid­ual word can be the start­ing point for an adven­ture in imag­i­na­tion — and con­tem­plat­ing indi­vid­ual words is pre­cise­ly what lex­i­cog­ra­phers do.” Tolkien’s bound­less curios­i­ty about the roots of lan­guage led him to “invent every­thing,” writes Tolkien crit­ic John Garth, “from star mariners to cal­en­dars, flow­ers, cities, food­stuffs, writ­ing sys­tems and birth­day cus­toms, to men­tion just a few of the eclec­tic fea­tures of Mid­dle-earth.”

Decades after Tolkien’s first asso­ci­a­tion with the OED, he would become involved again with the pub­li­ca­tion in 1969 when the edi­tor of the dic­tio­nary’s Sup­ple­ment, his for­mer stu­dent Robert Burch­field, asked for com­ments on the entry for “Hob­bit.” Tolkien offered his own def­i­n­i­tion for just one of the many Tolkien­ian words that would even­tu­al­ly make into the OED (along with math­om, orc, mithril, and bal­rog). Burch­field pub­lished Tolkien’s def­i­n­i­tion almost exact­ly as writ­ten:

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.

Learn more about Tolkien’s work on the Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary’s first edi­tion in this arti­cle by Peter Gilliv­er and pick up a copy of Ring of Words here.

Relat­ed Con­tent: 

When the Nobel Prize Com­mit­tee Reject­ed The Lord of the Rings: Tolkien “Has Not Mea­sured Up to Sto­ry­telling of the High­est Qual­i­ty” (1961)

Dis­cov­er J.R.R. Tolkien’s Per­son­al Book Cov­er Designs for The Lord of the Rings Tril­o­gy

Dis­cov­er J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lit­tle-Known and Hand-Illus­trat­ed Children’s Book, Mr. Bliss

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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  • Mike Gutowski says:

    Tolkien’s lit­er­ary work cracked the bell of the known author­ship world, and in doing so, rang and clanged into human exis­tence a hereto­fore unknown cre­ative mas­tery of the writ­ten word sounds and mean­ings. Some­times, to cre­ate unique­ness, the form­ing mold must be bro­ken. There is yet beau­ty in the bro­ken form mold. Let the next inno­v­a­tive lit­er­ary genius become found upon human­i­ty’s land­scape!

  • Gothic Extravaganza says:

    I knew it! Tolkien worked on the dic­tio­nary. Shame tho, none of his words like Gan­dalf are found there­in…
    On a side note, giv­en the lads of Mon­ty Python first met at Oxford, does any­one know if any of them were in any of his class­es? Unlike­ly, tho still pos­si­ble. There­fore I unwit­ting­ly ask.

  • Melissa L McCann says:

    That is inter­est­ing because “Gan­dalf” does appear in Scan­di­na­vian (I think) mythol­o­gy as a dwarf. The name means “wand elf”. I don’t remem­ber where I learned that. Some­times I find the weird­est stuff in my brain.

  • Grant newman says:

    Gandalph.……ancient norse for .….a collection/collector/shepherd of dwarfin folk. Just for info ..

  • Ben Gilbert says:

    Gan­dolf and the names of the dwarves from The Hob­bit.

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