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A lot of the dictionaries I looked at don’t even include the word hobbit.
Most of the ones that do credit JRR Tolkien as having dreamt up hobbits for his books The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings.
This is both understandable and believable.
But when I looked at Brewers Dictionary of Modern Phrase and Fable I got a hint of something more. While most of the other sources say that hobbits were created by Tolkien, Brewers slyly says that they feature in his stories.
To get the deeper truth we need to burrow deeper into the hobbit hole and The Oxford English Dictionary is the place to do that.
The OED is in a unique position of authority because Tolkien actually worked there for a few years early in his career. Plus a later editor had studied under Tolkien’s professorship.
So in the late ‘60s when The Lord of the Rings was making its first rise to popularity the OED added hobbit as an entry.
How better to check out the etymology of the word than to ask its creator?
Except that JRR Tolkien denied having created the word.
He helped them define it as an imaginary people, small but human, whose name means ‘hole-dweller’ but did not claim credit for their invention.
No citations were found that predated Tolkien’s 1937 use in the book of the same name, so that’s what’s given as hobbit’s earliest usage in OED.
But since that time, as reported in an OED newsletter, the word has been found in a 19th century folklore journal.
So even though JRR couldn’t remember where he’d first heard of hobbits, it turns out his denial of inventing them was justified.
Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of several books including his latest History of Wine Words – An Intoxicating Dictionary of Etymology from the Vineyard, Glass, and Bottle.