hobbit

“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.” So begins J. R. R. Tolkien’s 1937 novel The Hobbit. A hobbit, as anyone who doesn’t live in a hole in the ground knows, is a small humanoid creature with hairy feet and a fondness for pipe-weed. The two most famous hobbits, Bilbo and Frodo Baggins, are the protagonists of that novel and of Tolkien’s later The Lord of the Rings. But contrary to what most people believe, Tolkien did not coin the term hobbit.

Instead, hobbit comes to us from English folklore, where it is a name for a type of spirit or mythical creature. The word is recorded in the Denham Tracts, a series of privately published compilations of folklore by Michael Denham, produced between 1846–59. In the closing years of the nineteenth century, the tracts were edited and re-published by the Folklore Society. Denham gives no description of what a hobbit is, only the name in a long list of such names:

…boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants, hobbits, hobgoblins, brown-men…

The hob is most likely a nickname for Robert and appears in a number of names of spirits and creatures, such as hobgoblin and hob-thrush. A form of Robert also appears in the name Robin Goodfellow, a name known to us today mainly from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, but which was used generally as a name for a sprite or fairy.

Tolkien, who never claimed to have coined the word hobbit, had access to the Denham Tracts, and given his interest in creating a mythic corpus for English culture, it seems likely that he absorbed the word from this source. In Appendix F to The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien gives a fictional etymology for hobbit, deriving it from the Old English words hol (“hole”) and bytla (“builder”):

Hobbit is an invention. In the Westron the word used, when this people was referred to at all, was banakil “halfling.” But at this date the folk of the Shire and of Bree used the word kuduk, which was not found elsewhere. Meriadoc, however, actually records that the King of Rohan used the word kûd-dûkan “hole-dweller.” Since, as has been noted, the Hobbits had once spoken a language closely related to that of the Rohirrim, it seems likely that kuduk was a worn-down form of kûd-dûkan. The latter I have translated, for reasons explained, by holbytla; and hobbit provides a word that might well be a worn-down form of holbytla, if the name had occurred in our own ancient language.

In 2003, the remains of what appears to be a diminutive species of hominin were found on the Indonesian island of Flores. Officially dubbed Homo floresiensis, by 2004 they had become known popularly as hobbits. There is debate in the scientific community whether the remains truly represent an extinct species or if they are a sample of Homo sapiens that are pathologically small.

While Tolkien may not have coined the word hobbit, he did invent the concept of hobbits as we know them, and we should justly thank him for that inspired leap of imagination.


Sources:

Hardy, James. The Denham Tracts: A Collection of Folklore by Michael Aislabie Denham, vol 2 of 2. James Hardy, ed. London: The Folklore Society, 1895, 2:79.

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. hobbit, n., hob, n.1, hob-thrush, n.

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