Tolkien and the OED

July 22, 2009

I can remember when, as a young boy of eight or ten years, I first heard the word “lexicographer”.  I knew then what I wanted to be when I grew up.  Before that time I had gravitated toward “zoologist” — and I had a scrapbook of cut out animal pictures to prove it — but lexicography, the making of dictionaries, seemed a noble way to serve mankind, and the very word itself rang out like a song.   I was ready for the challenge.

In the end I didn’t make much progress toward that goal. There were no courses in lexicography in middle school, and anyway I was soon distracted by those newfangled computers and, later, by the glories of modern physics.  Yet I retain an admiration for the lexicographer’s art.  When in London a few years ago I made a pilgrimage to the former home of Our Lexicographer, Dr. Johnson;  the editor of the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary attends a church near my home that I have been known to frequent, and I regard her with quiet awe.  For my own part, I keep the Oxford English Dictionary within arm’s reach, for there are many treasures therein.

I was delighted, therefore, to discover that J.R.R. Tolkien worked on the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary.  Did you know that?  While in his late 20s he had a two-year stint with the dictionary, from 1919-20.  He worked mostly on words between waggle and warlock, providing both definitions and etymologies.  His entries include walnut, walrus, and, as an exercise in careful distinction of usages, want.  He later said that he “learned more in those two years than in any other equal period in my life.”  His employment with the dictionary came to an end when he took up an academic position at Leeds University.

Subsequent editions of the OED have included several interesting new words: hobbit, orc, and mithril.  All the world’s a stage, my friends, and we are the players.

I learned about this from an OED newsletter, which tells more of the history and includes some scans of Tolkien’s handwritten notes.

11 Responses to “Tolkien and the OED”

  1. Adam Hincks Says:

    Craig, I highly recommend The Meaning of Everything by Simon Winchester (Oxford University Press, 2003) if you are an OED aficionado. Apparently Tolkien’s biggest challenge was “walrus” which has a very difficult etymology.

  2. Janet Says:

    Dr. Johnson? Is her first name Samuela?

    I had never read anything about Samuel Johnson’s dictionary until I studied it in lit class last year. It is so fascinating-a much better read than our current dictionaries.


  3. “…as a young boy of eight or ten years, I first heard the word “lexicographer”. I knew then what I wanted to be when I grew up.”

    I’m a bit in awe of this. I was a bookworm, certainly the most bookwormish of any children I knew, but when I was eight or ten I wanted to be a fighter pilot.

    I have to brag that I did know that Tolkien worked on the OED, although, characteristically, I didn’t know any of the details. I suppose you’ve read that book, which I can’t remember the name of right now–The Madman and the…[something], I think–about the mentally unbalanced fellow who was one of the driving forces of the OED.

  4. Tracy S. Altman Says:

    I remember reading somewhere that the editor of the Hobbit had wanted to change Tolkien’s plural “dwarves” to “dwarfs,” arguing that the OED listed the latter as the plural. At which point Tolkien informed him, “I helped WRITE the OED.” Tolkien’s plural stayed.

  5. cburrell Says:

    Thanks for that recommendation, Adam. I have read The Professor and the Madman (which I think is the book you are thinking of, Maclin), but I’ll add The Meaning of Everything to my list.

    Janet, have you seen the definition of “lexicographer” in Johnson’s dictionary?

    I had heard of the dispute over “dwarves”, but didn’t know that Tolkien deployed the argument from authority (or, maybe more precisely, the argument undermining authority) to resolve it. “Dwarves” is far superior.

  6. John Wright Says:

    Not only had I heard that Professor Tolkien was a Lexicographer, but I had heard the following anecdote about it. I pass it along for entertainment value, since I know not whether it is true.

    It seems the good Professor encountered an undue amount of grief for his neologism “dwarves” (a word he invented to replace “dwarfs”) and that one critic in anger told him to go look the word up in the OED! Had he not read the dictionary? Tolkien with dignity replied, “Sir, I *wrote* the dictionary.”

  7. cburrell Says:

    It’s a good story, John. I cannot corroborate its truth, but I do know that I have heard it before. In fact, looking back at some of the earlier comments on this post I see that the story came up already. Ah well, it never hurts to hear a good story again. Thanks for stopping by.

  8. John Wright Says:

    “In fact, looking back at some of the earlier comments on this post I see that the story came up already.”

    I hang my head in a modicum of shame. Next time I stop by I will take the time to stop in truth, and actually read the comments before commenting.

    By the way, I admire and adore your comments on David B. Hart. Let us you and I form a fan club, or ask the Roman Senate(or whoever the proper authority might be) to elevate Mr. Hart to divine honors, like Caesar. (On second thought, such pagan finery might ill befit an honest Christian gentleman as he.)

  9. cburrell Says:

    Oh, that’s alright. I clicked through to your home page, and I can see that you are a busy man! That’s quite an impressive body of work you’ve accumulated. I am myself not much of a science fiction enthusiast, but I can still recognize an impressive achievement when I see one.

    I am glad to learn that you are also an admirer of Hart. He is quite a character. I have heard people complain about his prose style, but I simply don’t understand that: to my ears his pen makes a very beguiling music.

    Considering that Hart is Orthodox, we should probably bypass the Roman senate and approach the Byzantine emperor directly. If only it were possible. Pity about those Ottomans.

  10. Paul Says:

    There’s actually a slender book from OUP about Tolkien’s work on the dictionary, called (I think) Ring of Words.

  11. cburrell Says:

    Hmm. I did not know that. You are right about the title.

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