Middle-Oxford: Tolkien's World-Hoard

The Wilson Quarterly, Autumn 2006 | Go to article overview

Middle-Oxford: Tolkien's World-Hoard


Those looking for more lighthearted memories of the last century may recall that the British public, asked to vote for the century's greatest hook, bypassed works by the likes of Virginia Woolf and Joseph Conrad to choose J. R. R. Tolkien's beloved Lord of the Rings trilogy. Tolkien is equally famous (at least among fans) for the entire languages he invented for Elves, Dwarves, and other creatures, complete with elaborate etymologies tracing their imaginary relationships to Old English, Icelandic, and related tongues, of which he was a lifelong scholar. Few realize that he also worked professionally as an etymologist during a two-year stint helping to write the Oxford English Dictionary--a period, he said later, when he learned more than in any other comparable time in his life.

Fresh from the Great War, with a young family to support, Tolkien joined the OED staff in 1919 and was assigned a tricky stretch of the letter W. Drawing on his expertise in medieval Germanic languages, Tolkien plunged in, researching the complicated derivations of such words as wan, warm, waist, waggle, and wallop. Three present-day editors of the OED--Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner--have compiled this early work in The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the "Oxford English Dictionary" (Oxford Univ. …

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