- The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary
Tolkien worked on the staff of what would later be called the Oxford English Dictionary from January 1919 through the end of May 1920. In J.R.R. Tolkien: A Biography, Humphrey Carpenter quotes Tolkien as saying that "I learned more in those two years than in any other equal period of my life" (101). The present slim volume, by three staff editors at the OED, considers not only Tolkien's time there but how that training as a working philologist, dealing in etymologies and the cognates of English words in various Germanic languages as well as in definitions and particular meanings, permeates his own writings—not just his academic [End Page 302] work but, more significantly, the literary writings of his vast imagined world of Middle-earth.
The result is a curious book in a number of ways, but still a valuable one. The Rings of Words is divided into three parts: the first, "Tolkien as a Lexicographer," is a history of Tolkien's work at the OED; part two, "Tolkien as Wordwright," discusses the practice of philology in a broader and more historical sense, with Tolkien as the prime example; while part three, entitled "Word Studies," is made up of short individual entries, arranged alphabetically, of about a hundred words used by Tolkien in his writings.
The respective contributions made by the three writers of this book are nowhere differentiated, but the entire first section is closely based on Peter Gilliver's lecture "At the Wordface: J.R.R. Tolkien's Work on the Oxford English Dictionary," published in the Proceedings of the J.R.R. Tolkien Centenary Conference 1992 (1995), edited by Patricia Reynolds and Glen H. GoodKnight. (Oddly, this previous publication is neither acknowledged nor cited.) Though the material added to the present version is not extensive, it is good to see this work reach a much larger audience than it had via its appearance in a volume of conference papers.
This essay is based primarily on the OED's own records, including the handwritten slips kept for each word. Some of these slips are reproduced in facsimile, showing instances of Tolkien's etymologies being accepted or added to by Henry Bradley, his supervisor and one of the "Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford" (as Tolkien humorously described them in Farmer Giles of Ham—meaning the four successive editors of the OED). By the time of Tolkien's arrival, the staff was working on the letter W—one with many words of Germanic origins, so Tolkien's expertise was especially useful. For a few words not otherwise attested as Tolkien's work in the OED archive, Humphrey Carpenter is quoted as saying that Tolkien "was given the job of researching the etymology of warm, wash, wasp, water, wick (lamp), and winter" (9). Though the source of this quotation is not cited (proper sourcing is an occasional problem in the book), it comes from page 101 of the 1977 edition of Carpenter's biography. However, the quote is not reproduced accurately—Carpenter does not include the word wash. Fortunately, wash does not come up for any further discussion in The Ring of Words, and as it is not included in the authors' list of over fifty "Entries in the OED worked on by Tolkien" (42), the addition of it to the quotation from Carpenter may be ascribed to a simple error.
"Tolkien as Wordwright" is a discussion of philological erudition and literary usage, particularly in terms of word invention (besides Tolkien, W. H. Auden, James Joyce and E. R. Eddison are mentioned) and the use of archaism (as found not only in Tolkien but also, more extensively, in William Morris). Tolkien's keen interest in the interrelationship of [End Page 303] language and history is described in terms of philological reconstruction ("the fundamental process in etymology" 51), an area previously explored by Tom Shippey in The Road to Middle-earth.