During the fall semester, as I was studying Old English texts, I unearthed several Old English words I vaguely assumed J.R.R. Tolkien had invented himself. I am not referring to words Tolkien borrowed and modified to his own taste. These were words whose form in The Lord of the Rings was identical (or nearly identical) to their form in Old English. They were Old English words.
Each Tolkien word encountered in the Old English was met with wonder and the delighted exclamation of “The genius!” For Tolkien is no simpleton and each Old English definition reveals a circle of meaning beneath the surface of The Lord of the Rings. He is a man after my own heart…
Here are five words I uncovered.
enta geweorc “work of giants”1
Ent is the Old English word for “giant.” In their poetry, the Anglo-Saxons often spoke of ruins as “the work of giants.”
orþonc ærsceaft “well-crafted ancient-work”2
Orþonc describes something made with great skill and craft. This could apply to the tower of Orthanc itself, or to Saruman.
morþor hycgendne “with murderous intent”3
Morþor means things like “murder,” “mortal sin, great wickedness,” “torment, deadly injury, great misery.”4 Anne Lingard Klinck writes that morþor “always carries a sense of evil or violence.”5
In Old English, there are two ways to represent the th sound. One is the letter þ (called a “thorn”), the other is the letter ð (called an “eth”). These were used fairly interchangeably. The ð looks a little like the Latin letter d.
deagol “secret,” “hidden, dark, obscure”6
I found this Old English word while researching the etymology of “dye.”
Déagol was Gollum’s friend, once upon a time. He was the one who first found the Ring and was after murdered by Gollum. The definition of the Old English word may refer to Déagol’s disappearance after the unfortunate fishing trip, for Tolkien says, “No one ever found out what had become of Déagol; he was murdered far from home, and his body was cunningly hidden.”7
Hwær cwom mearg? “Where is the horse?”8
Mearh is the Old English word for “horse.” Mearas is the plural form. In The Lord of the Rings, the Mearas are a race of horses, of which Shadowfax is chief.
I am continually awed by Tolkien’s grasp of languages. The more I study, the more I realise how much knowledge went into The Lord of the Rings. Most of it is subliminal and does not make much difference on the surface, as one staring at a tapestry from a distance, but allows it to retain its realism when viewed closely with scrutiny.
1The Wanderer, l. 86
2Richard Fahey, The Ruin, l. 16
3Ellen Amatangelo, The Wife’s Lament, l. 20
4Bosworth Toller’s Anglo-Saxon Dictionary Online, “Morþor”
5Anne Lingard Klinck, The Old English Elegies: A Critical Edition and Genre Study, Part II
7J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, Book 1, Chapter 2
8The Wanderer, l. 92
4 thoughts on “5 Words You Thought Tolkien Invented”
Fantastic blog post, Nicole! I always love reading about the philological experience Tolkien employed in his creation of Middle Earth languages. I had no idea Orthanc or Mordor were derived from Old English words. That’s amazing. I think it gives the names deeper meaning knowing their etymological roots!
I remember studying Beowulf in a medieval literature class and finding so many names with the Eom- prefix, and we had a long drawn out discussion about Eomer, Eomund, Eorlingas, and all the other Eo’s (lol) in Tolkien’s work.
By the way, did you see the trailer for The Rings of Power? I’m not sure how I feel about it, but hearing Morfydd Clark’s voice as young Galadriel didn’t sound…half bad. If I had to pick someone for the role, I feel like I would have choose her.
Thanks again for the post!
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Thank you, Emily. Neither did I–Mordor and Orthanc came as complete (and delightful) surprises.
About The Rings of Power trailer. Funny, I had just watched it before I read your comment! Honestly, it was so vague, I don’t know what to think about it. I will say that if the music in the trailer is an accurate sample of the music for the series, there is definitely potential in that area. I can hear they have taken inspiration from the original trilogy score and I feel some relief at that knowledge. 🙂
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Very interesting, Nicole! It really shows how much Tolkien put into his works, as you already said. At first, I thought it would not be a good sort of thing to take directly from something else (like plagiarizing), but if you look at it from your angle, it can make the person look very well learned.
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I agree, Daniel! I used to think that one should try to make everything original and not take anything from anyone else. I thought it would be like cheating (or plagiarizing, as you put it). But whenever Tolkien does it, I am reminded that taking inspiration is actually a good thing and springs from natural fountains of knowledge and experience.
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