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Where Does the Word Hobbit Come From?

hobbit, Tolkien

J.R.R. Tolkien was born on January 3, 1892. In honor of the author’s beloved Lord of the Rings series of books, we pay tribute to his fantastic creation, the hobbit. Hobbits are similar to humans, but they are short and have hairy feet. Bilbo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, and Frodo Baggins are the most-well known hobbit examples. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s fiction, they’re

 the peaceful folk who reside in Middle Earth.

(On a side note, if you’ve ever wanted to know what the “J.R.R.” in Tolkien’s name stands for, here’s the answer.)

As you may have guessed, hobbits are a fictional race born in Tolkien’s imagination. He even created an etymology for the word; hobbit derives from the word Holbytla, which means “hole-dweller” in Old English. Tolkien invented three groups of hobbits. The Harfoots were the smallest of all the hobbits and also the first to enter Eriador, a large region of Middle Earth. The Fallohides are the least numerous of the Hobbits and tall and fair. The Stoors were the last to enter Eriador. They stand out as being the only hobbits that are willing to swim.

Now here’s the fascinating and slightly spooky detail. There are no references to hobbits before Tolkien’s publication, except for one. In 1895, the folklorist Michael Aislabie Denham published a long list of supernatural creatures. Here’s an excerpt: “. . . nixies, Jinny-burnt-tails, dudmen, hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants, hobbits . . .”

While Tolkien was a masterful adapter of mythology and folklore, there isn’t the slightest suggestion that he was aware of this list. Synchronicity, coincidence, or serendipity? Tolkien’s interest in language predates his career as a professional writer. After World War I, the Oxford English Dictionary was Tolkien’s first employer. His job at the dictionary involved working on the history and etymology of Germanic words that begin with “W.”

Tell us about your favorite hobbit, or a Lord of the Rings word you’d like us to explore, below.

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215 Comments

  1. Cody Hornbuckle -  January 19, 2014 - 8:17 am

    I am a hobbit and I find this article offensive.

    Reply
  2. An Awesome Minecrafter With Several Awesome Minecrafting Friends -  January 6, 2014 - 1:55 am

    Pippin, Frodo, and Sam are my favorite hobbits, but Legolas and Gandalf are my favorite LOTR characters. Not to mention Shadowfax, Gandalf’s horse; and Snowfire, Frodo’s horse.

    My horses in Minecraft:
    Windrunner – very fast brown-and-white pinto from a wild herd
    Snowfire – strong white horse from a wild herd
    Shadowfax – beautiful dappled gray horse with black mane & tail
    Shadowfire – dappled gray-and-white pinto; colt of Snowfire and Shadowfax

    @wolf tamer and tree puncher:
    You breed horses by right-clicking on 2 horses in a row with a golden apple in your hand.

    Reply
  3. Rosemary -  December 19, 2013 - 4:18 pm

    I’ve always liked Bilbo the best. I grew up watching that ancient cartoon version of The Hobbit, and I prefer it to Lord Of The Rings. However, I do love the bit in The Fellowship Of The Ring when Bilbo says, “I don’t know half of you half as well as I should like; and I like less than half of you half as well as you deserve.”. And all his guests just sit there and try to work out whether or not it’s an insult or a compliment or both.

    Reply
  4. wolf tamer and tree puncher -  December 17, 2013 - 5:11 am

    And, of course, Fatty Bolger. Frodo & Co. could never have escaped from the Shire without him.

    I want to know more about the Barrow-wights.

    @Katie:
    Frodo was not whiney. He was carrying the Ring for goodness’ sake! Give just one example of Frodo being “whiney.”

    Does anyone here play WolfQuest?

    Reply
  5. wolf tamer and tree puncher -  December 16, 2013 - 4:09 am

    Samwise Gamgee is my favorite hobbit! Frodo would be dead without him. Of course I like Frodo too; he’s the only one who could finish the Quest and he *was* brave. Don’t you think that if you were carrying the Ring, you’d get a little “annoying” too? And I like Pippin, too. He’s great.

    @Matthew:
    Aragorn/Strider/all his other names I keep confusing with other people isn’t a hobbit.

    @Dragonfly:
    What the Minecraft does that mean? (I made that expression up, thank you very much.)

    @Apurwa:
    I agree. But he’s a hobbit, not a human. :)

    @Dewey18:
    Sméagol was one of the River Folk (a type of hobbit, I think), but he became…something else when he got hold of the Ring. You couldn’t really call him a hobbit anymore. He’s the one and only Gollum.

    @Lala72:
    Ha ha. :)

    @Mermaid:
    He was actually a hobbit before he was corrupted by The Ring.

    @just so you know:
    Just so you know, you’re wrong. Obviously you’re one of those shallow people who go “Oh look – two friends who are the same gender! They must be gay!” Ugh! It’s stupid.

    @FrodoFan:
    It’s saying a lot too much! :)

    @ha:
    Ha. ;)

    @All you people who keep comparing Harry Potter to LOTR:
    *Of course* there are similarities! Basically *all* mythological books have similarities. Although, yeah, the horcruxes (by the way, how do you say “horcrux”?) and the Ring are awfully similar…but J.K. Rowling must have gotten some good ideas from Tolkien and wanted to use them in her writing.

    BTW, does anybody know how to breed horses in Minecraft? (If I get a black one, I’ll call it Shadowfax [of course]. ;) )

    Reply
  6. james holk -  October 5, 2011 - 3:08 pm

    he is great!

    Reply
  7. Anonymous -  January 28, 2011 - 1:44 pm

    Oh, and @Kinar Ohanian:
    All right, all right, sorry if I was a dunderhead and essentially called you an idiot! But still, I stand by my original objection about Sam being a “loyal coward”. I looked it up, and the definition of “coward” is: “lacking courage; very fearful or timid.” He did NOT lack courage; he was afraid: he felt fear. Feeling fear does not make one a coward. They were not all cowards.
    And for your information, I also have read the book five times, soon to be six, but I haven’t watched the movies much because, though they were great as movies go, they just can’t compare with the book. They didn’t portray Treebeard/Fangorn right at all, and with the whole thing about him needing Merry to PERSUADE him to go to Isengard, or the Ents not knowing about the trees being felled. That and the complete change of the character of Faramir in The Two Towers are my two problems with the movies. Other than that, they were pretty accurate!
    So, I didn’t have the right to say you didn’t read the book; it just sounded like you didn’t. My apologies, it was harsh.
    Yeah, I don’t think that last sentence was appropriate.

    Reply
  8. Anonymous -  January 28, 2011 - 1:05 pm

    Sorry for the numerous posts, but:

    @Meridol:
    1. Exactly! He’s not a very likable character that often, but he does play an important role in the book. (By the way, he might have been a Stoor originally. I found that out in the foreword of The Fellowship of the Ring.)
    2. YES! I completely agree with you! He is my favorite (dare I apply that overused term?) author, and I am NOT exaggerating.
    3. I also agree with you about the Ring/Horcrux copying. I hadn’t realized the similarities between Gandalf and Dumbledore’s deaths! However, I do NOT agree with Harry Potter or JK Rowling’s repeated “the ends justify the means” theory throughout her series. I don’t mean to offend you, but being a Christian, the entire series is not to my taste. For instance, there is no reason, really, for their having magic powers; however, that’s just my opinion. Again, I don’t mean to offend!

    Reply
  9. Anonymous -  January 28, 2011 - 12:43 pm

    @Kinar Ohanian:
    I agree with what you said to @garret203.
    To @garret203:
    Tolkien was born in 1892, for heaven’s sake. JK Rowling was born in 1965. Doesn’t make sense! And anyway, how is there ANY resemblance between The Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter?? OK, so they both have wizards, but they are COMPLETELY different. In LOTR, wizards were essentially angels on earth in human form; their power was given to them for a reason by Iluvatar, the God-figure of that world. In HP, wizards and witches had magical power for no apparent reason: they just…had it, and, to my mind, it seemed like anybody who didn’t have power was stupid and clumsy. JK Rowling had a lot of inspiration FROM Tolkien, not vise versa. I’d say someone’s forgetting his history.

    In any case, I think all of us Tolkien-fans would greatly appreciate it if you would refrain from saying that one of the most well-known and beloved authors known to men “sucks”.

    Reply
  10. Anonymous -  January 27, 2011 - 12:34 pm

    I agree, @Kitti. He didn’t have enough…nobility in the movies; he had the scared/tired look down jot, but beyond that, there really isn’t the right Frodo-wisdom.

    Reply
  11. Kitti -  January 20, 2011 - 6:08 am

    I… did not like Elijah Wood in those movies. All he really did in the way of acting was clutch at his chest, looking pained. It would’ve taken a much more talented actor (or director, or even screenwriter, if one wants to give Elijah Wood the benefit of the doubt) to portray a character with as much complexity and subtlety as Frodo.

    Reply
  12. in light of HOBBITS :D -  January 16, 2011 - 10:06 pm

    “PIPPIN FTW! (for his cute innocent mischievous behavior :)
    I also like Merry. brandybuck<3
    Sam is cool too. I like his cheerful nature and his love for taters(:
    [AND his extreme loyalty to sam!!]
    Bilbo is splendid, what a fine chap! Funny too ;) wise old fart.
    And Frodo is alright." yeeg… But elijah wood is hot ;D

    Reply
  13. Kitti -  January 12, 2011 - 11:02 pm

    HEE. :D

    Reply
  14. smoothius -  January 12, 2011 - 12:50 pm

    and he lived happily ever after, till the end of his days:)

    Reply
  15. Kitti -  January 12, 2011 - 4:28 am

    Ahhhh, how I love the smell of overly emotional fandom squabbles in the morning. [/snark]

    Reply
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