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The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary

The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary [Kindle Edition]

Peter Gilliver , Jeremy Marshall , Edmund Weiner
5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)

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Product Description


a valuable contribution to study of the OED itself....The Ring of Words successfully reunites the academic and creative aspects of Tolkien. (John Garth, TLS)


Engaging book. Christopher Hirst, The Independent An intriguing exploration of Tolkien's career...which will delight the heart of 'Lord of the Rings' fans and word lovers.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 1285 KB
  • Print Length: 256 pages
  • Publisher: Oxford University Press, UK (27 April 2006)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • ASIN: B006K0M2RI
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Average Customer Review: 5.0 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (2 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #446,103 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
18 of 18 people found the following review helpful
This little book has been a treasure, literally a mathom amongst the works on Tolkien. It works both as a referenece book to explore the meaning of significant words and an enjoyable read just to further your understanding of language. The authors have produced a book that is effortless to read, appealing to the layman as much as an academic. I would happily reccomend this book to any Tolkien enthusiast. Unpretentious and stimulating, my only complaint is that the book had to end, I can but hope that there is a revised and expanded version to come. The definition of mathom is explained within the text, along with many other words unearthed by Tolkien during his voyages through creation of Middle Earth. This book will further your enjoyment of the works of Tolkien. I wish I could write a more articulate review of this book to do it justice!
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A great work of scholarship 6 Jan 2013
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
In the late 1910s and early 1920s, J.R.R. Tolkien contributed to the writing of the Oxford English dictionary. The author, who is a current collaborator of the O.E.D., has gone over JRRT's entries and, with the use of OED archive, where his cards are stored, gives us a fascinating insider's view of the way his mind functioned and how he came to write his contributions.
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53 of 53 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Fine Addition To Tolkien Scholarship 13 July 2006
By John D. Cofield - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
This short (229 pages plus bibliography and index) but highly important work will become an absolute necessity for all Tolkien admirers.

There are three sections. The first deals with Tolkien's brief but productive period working on the Oxford English Dictionary. The authors, who are all Editors of the OED, were able to examine the actual scraps of paper on which Tolkien wrote drafts for definitions and etymologies of words (primarily beginning with W) to be included in the OED. To an outsider such work could seem tedious in the extreme, but since the authors are as fascinated by the origins and developments of words as Tolkien was himself, they help us see how intriguing such work can be. (Indeed, Tolkien was so enthusiastic that many of his definitions had to be severely edited by the then Editor, who thus gained time and space at the expense of some great scholarship.)

The second section, on Tolkien as wordwright, I found particularly interesting. Having been an enthusiastic student of Middle earth since the age of 12 in 1969, I am very familiar with Tolkien's enormous vocabulary and love of words, and this section brings new light to Tolkien's deep knowledge of Anglo-Saxon and other ancient tongues, and to his readings of such authors as William Morris and H.R. Haggard, among many others. Here the reader recognizes anew that Tolkien's chosen career of philology was not just his job, but also his passion.

The third section is devoted to word studies and gives short histories of some of the terms, like Middle earth, Hobbit, mathom, etc, which Tolkien used throughout his writings. These are sometimes archaic terms like nuncheon and sometimes words developed by Tolkien himself such as eucatastrophe and legendarium, which have now entered the English language.

This is a scholarly but highly accessible work which will be appreciated by Tolkien scholars and anyone else who loves the English language.
27 of 27 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tolkien, the _OED_, and the Love of Words 13 Sep 2006
By R. Hardy - Published on
Only those in a persistent neurovegetative state could be unaware of _The Lord of the Rings_, J. R. R. Tolkien's massive epic and the estimable films it inspired. Tolkien has won acclaim as the most beloved author of the twentieth century, and his mythic inventions of lands and creatures are read all over the world, and not just by young people devoted to fantasy. Tolkien is less well known as a sub-editor to a work at least as influential, the _Oxford English Dictionary_. In fact, he was carried off the fields of World War One with trench fever, and wound up in Oxford in 1916, when he was 24 years old. He joined the dictionary's staff for two years, and said, "I learned more in those two years than in any equal period of my life." What he learned was dictionary-making and the lexicographer's way looking at the history of certain words, but his word endeavors also fired his imagination. In _The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary_ (Oxford University Press), Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner have examined Tolkien's contributions to the _OED_, and they are in a perfect position to do so: they are among the current editors of the dictionary themselves. They wanted to write the book "to examine Tolkien's word-hoard with a lexicographer's eye." Anyone interested in either the history of the imaginary Middle Earth or the great dictionary will find richness here.

Years later Tolkien wrote of the job offered to him as "kindness... to a jobless soldier in 1918". Most of the dictionary, issued alphabetically, had been done, and Tolkien was assigned as subeditor for a portion of words beginning with W, sorting each word into its subsenses, drafting definitions for each, and researching the etymology. He started off doing this sort of duty for "waggle", "wain", and "waist". His contributions have not ended even now, since the dictionary is still being revised and expanded; notes he made eighty years ago which were deemed too obscure (even for the _OED_!) are being considered for inclusion. Tolkien had been fascinated with old languages, a deep and mystic feeling that inspired his own writing. The authors give examples of other writers who put old words into the mouths of characters with a laughable resulting combination of modern and old forms, but Tolkien got it right, not just in using old words, but in using archaic diction to good effect. As Tolkien himself wrote in an essay "On Translating Beowulf": "We are being at once wisely aware of our own frivolity and just to the solemn temper of the original, if we avoid _hitting_ and _whacking_ and prefer 'striking' and 'smiting'."

About half of _The Ring of Words_ is devoted to specific words which Tolkien borrowed, changed, or invented. Here are examined "wraith", "confusticate", "eleventy-one", and "orc". "Hobbit" is here, of course, a word that everyone associates with Tolkien but one which he modestly said he was not sure he had invented, although he could not otherwise account for it. Indeed, in 1977, an obscure list of fantastical creatures published by a folklorist in 1895 included "hobbit" (as well as beings called "boggleboes".) Some of Tolkien's words will never wander outside of literary fantasy, but even these, the authors show, are being widely used in new fantasy novels and by role-playing gamers. Some will justly be getting wider circulation. One I liked is "staggerment": "To say that Bilbo's breath was taken away is no description at all. There are no words left to express his staggerment." And here is a word I think we all could use, "mathom". It was borrowed from a common Old English word meaning "treasure", and Tolkien wrote, "Anything that hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away, they called a _mathom_." Such bright inventions will make reading _The Ring of Words_, which is really a serious and scholarly book, a delight for anyone who likes thinking about language.
10 of 10 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Tolkien as Lexicographer and Wordsmith 3 Nov 2006
By Jason Fisher - Published on
This is a short but fasinating volume on Tolkien's time working on the Oxford English Dictionary project (then called the N.E.D. -- the New English Dictionary). The book opens with a few short chapters on Tolkien's time at the O.E.D., a discussion of some of the well-known editors he worked with (e.g., Henry Bradley, C.T. Onions, William Craigie, et al.), and some of the entries (in the W fascicle) that Tolkien is known to have worked on. This section of the book is rather like an extended version of Peter Gilliverh's 1992 article, "At the Wordface: J.R.R. Tolkien's Work on the Oxford English Dictionary" (published in the Proceedings of the Tolkien Centenary Conference, but now OOP).

The second, and much larger, part of the book is a systematic (if by necessity incomplete) look at many of the words Tolkien's invented or resurrected from obscurity. I won't take the time to enumerate them all here. But suffice it to say that it was fascinating reading, even for an already knowledgable person like myself.

A terrific addition to the library of any admirer or student of Tolkien's life and works.
3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Running rings around the words 2 Aug 2006
By Michael Waghorne - Published on
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
I really enjoyed this book. I learnt an enormous amount about my own language but also about many other north European languages. Tolkien was such an imaginative man. I live with a Swedish woman and am familiar with some Swedish words, terms and concepts and I found myself saying 'Aha!' all the way through the book
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Combining scholarship and fiction writing 16 Jun 2010
By Mark E. Hall - Published on
The opening chapter looks at Tolkien's career with the compilation of the Oxford English Dictionary. Tolkien, due to his connections with William Craigie and Joseph Wright, started with the dictionary in late 1918 or early 1919. He worked on writing entries on words beginning with "w". Due to his strengths in Old English and Old Norse, he was assigned to the w-words since many have Germanic roots. His work on the OED led to his compilation of A Middle English Vocabulary (1922).

"Tolkien as Wordwright" introduces philology--at least as it was practiced in the first half of the 20th century--and then looks at Tolkien's work as a philologist. The approach the authors take look at both Tolkien's academic work and his fiction. While one could balk at this approach, it is clear that Tolkien's interest in the history and etymology of Germanic languages, led to his creation of the Elvish languages and a host of words used throughout the Lord of the Rings. While some Old English scholars have lamented that Tolkien spent too much time with his Middle Earth, the authors clearly show that much of his academic training and work is what makes the Lord of the Rings unique.

Also discussed in the second chapter is the use of archaic language in modern literature. Given its use in modern fantasy, this section deserved its own chapter. The tradition started with George Dasent in the 19th century during the nationalistic revivals of medieval literature and folklore. William Morris followed. With Morris, the authors argue, the reader is awash with an archaized dialect that is a cross between the King James Bible and Middle English (70). Tolkien, the authors argue, had a much more judicious use of archaic and archaicized words. His appreciation of sounds and rhythm, his philological training, and understanding of scenes and their context, all contributed to his restraint.

The bulk of the remaining text is devoted to study of words Tolkien either created or resurrected. For myself, I found this section quite interesting with the explanation for words like marish (Anglo-Norman term for a marsh), mathom (derived from Old English maþm/maþum), sigaldry (Middle English for enchantment or sorcery, derived most likely from Old English sigalder), staggerment (a creation of Tolkien's to evoke great astonishment), unthrottled and unlight (two negatives having their origin with Tolkien).

This book is highly recommended for individuals with an interest in Tolkien's career and philosophy, and/or medievalism in modern fantasy literature. With nearly half the text looking at Tolkien's word revivals and creations, I would recommend an interest or familiarity in English etymology, Old English and Old Norse for full enjoyment.
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