Hobbits

It’s a myth that Tolkien invented the hobbit. The detailed description of hobbits may have been his invention, but the word was pre-existing. I have seen it in a 19th century work on folklore in a list of supernatural creatures. Orcs are similar – the word previously existed, but meant a sea monster (think Orca). Tolkien adopted it for his goblin-oid minions of the Dark Lord. The odd thing is that makers of fantasy games are happy to have orcs all over the place, but daren’t mention hobbits for fear of the Tolkien estate. If anything, orcs are more original than hobbits – certainly in the extent to which the description differs from pre-existing usage of the name.

It was not a bad idea on JRR’s part to choose existing words, which sound like real names because they are real names. Although, being a linguist, Tolkien was better than most at inventing new words. Imitators of Tolkien often turn out to have a tin ear when it comes to invented words and names. Take, for instance, Robert Jordan, author of the lengthy “Wheel of Time” series. He needs to bring orcs into his world, but he doesn’t want to call them that. So he runs together “orc” and “troll” and comes up with “trollocs”. Which is unintentionally hilarious, firstly because it sounds like “ballocks” and secondly because it sounds like “trollops”. One can hardly read a sentence along the lines of “the way was blocked by a huge evil-looking trolloc” without mentally substituting “trollop”, with the risible image that follows.

Jordan has similar problems with other words. He wants his characters to smoke something, and calls it tabac. Now, either this is something pretty close to tobacco or it isn’t. If it is, why not call it tobacco and be done with it? The whole novel is not written in fantasy language, it’s written in English, which means that where a close English word exists, one uses it. That is how translation works. If the stuff is nothing like tobacco, then why give it a name that is so close as to be almost indistinguishable?

Better to use English words where they exist. Like hobbit, in fact.

You must be logged in to post a comment.