J.R.R. Tolkien’s first job was as an assistant on the staff of the OED, and he later said that he had ‘learned more in those two years than in any other equal period of [his] life.’ In The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary, three senior OED editors – Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner – explore more than 100 words found in Tolkien’s fiction, such as ‘hobbit’, ‘attercop’, and ‘precious’. Edmund Weiner has written this original post for OUPblog on Winterfilth (October) and Blotmath (November).
As I write this blog Winterfilth is coming to an end and Blotmath is about to begin. What on earth am I talking about? Well, as the Tolkien enthusiasts out there will know, these are the names that the hobbits used for October and November.
As it happens, although the action of The Lord of the Rings spans October and November (avid readers will remember that a lot of action happens in the one and the other is spent by the hobbits resting in Rivendell), these month names are not used in the story. They are given in an appendix in which Tolkien explains the calendar of the Shire (the land of the hobbits) and the hobbits’ names for the days of the week and the months.
Did Tolkien make these names up? No. Some people will be surprised to learn that he made up none of his ‘English’ words, as opposed to the words of the elvish, dwarvish, and orkish languages. (The one exception, funnily enough, may be the word ‘hobbit’—but the jury on that is still out.) The other strange and archaic-looking words, such as mathom, Arkenstone, eleventy, flet, and barrow-wight, are all based on earlier usage and generally go back either to Anglo-Saxon (Old English, English before the Norman Conquest) or to Old Norse (the language of the Vikings and Sagas).
So what about the months? Tolkien borrowed them for the hobbits from Anglo-Saxon texts that give both the Latin names of the months (the names we use now) and their Old English equivalents. None of the latter seem to have survived the Conquest except (in a different meaning) Yule, and Lide, a now obsolete dialect word for March, which may have meant ‘loud’ (referring to its windiness). Blotmath, or rather Blotmonath or Blodmonath, was the time when in pagan times cattle were sacrificed (blotan ‘sacrifice’ or blod ‘blood’).
And Winterfilth? In Old English this was Winterfylleth, in which fylleth means ‘fulness’, or perhaps ‘full moon’. The word for ‘filth’ was spelt and pronounced differently, but in modern English they would have come to sound the same, and this gave Tolkien an opportunity for one of the scholarly etymological puns to which he was very partial.