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The Ring of Words

Unless you’ve been imitating Rip Van Winkle for the past umpteen years, any book with the word ring in its title will probably remind you of J R R Tolkien’s epic The Lord of the Rings and the memorable films derived from it. The reference is deliberate, as Tolkien’s inventive use of language is its central theme. Though it is accessibly written, The Ring of Words is serious and scholarly both in intent and execution.

The cover of The Ring of Words

It’s little known that, before he wrote his famous books, Tolkien worked as a sub-editor at the Oxford English Dictionary for two years, helping to compile the last section to be published. Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner — the authors of this book — are among the present-day senior editors of the same work. Their commemoration of his linguistic facility comes a little late to the Tolkien party, but will interest anybody who regards the language of the books to be one of their prime qualities.

This book is divided into three main parts. The first describes Tolkien’s work at the OED, which by a quirk of publication dealt with many words in W, such as waggle, wain, waist, wallop, walnut, walrus, and wampum. The second section focuses on the influences that shaped Tolkien’s linguistic invention, including the deliberate archaisms of writers such as Sir Walter Scott and his literary descendants. The third is a detailed treatment of a hundred or so of Tolkien’s most characteristic words, ranging from amidmost to wraith, via confusticate, eleventy-one, ent, hobbit, orc, waybread, and weregild.

Among them is mathom, an archaic Old English word which he revived to mean “anything that hobbits had no immediate use for, but were unwilling to throw away”. It’s a favourite word of mine, since I had a small hand in drafting the word’s OED Online entry, having found it, of all places, in an old issue of the computer magazine Byte.

An afterword discusses Tolkien’s influence on the English language and shows how more recent writers — especially those working in the fantasy genre — have frequently adopted his style and language.

[Peter Gilliver et al, The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the OUford English Dictionary, published by OUford University Press on 27 April 2006; hardback, pp240; ISBN 0-19-861069-6; publisher’s UK price £12.99.]

Page created 6 May 2006

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