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While there was still a king they were in name his subjects, but they were, in fact, ruled by their own chieftains and meddled not at all with events in the world outside.

What does "they were in name his subjects" mean in this passage from The Lord of the Rings?

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They were de jure (officially, supposedly, on paper, in theory) ruled over by the king.

There are many terms to express this meaning. From Merriam Webster on "in name":

used with a following statement to say that something is so by name or title but that is not the way things really are

Nowadays, the Latin term de jure (as opposed to de facto meaning "in fact") is still commonly used to express such a situation. Terms such as "officially" and "on paper" are also used.

In this context, Tolkien is telling us about the history of Hobbits. While the Kingdom of Arnor was still functioning, they were still subjects (noun, meaning 3) of its king, citizens of the kingdom according to the laws of the kingdom - but in reality, they did their own thing and cared little for the kingdom or the world outside of their own domain.

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  • I think nominally tends to carry the "[but not really]" meaning better than de jure (which doesn't automatically imply "[but not de facto]"). – Will Crawford Jan 21 at 18:02
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A comparable situation today:

Canadians are in name the subjects of Queen Elizabeth of England, but are in fact ruled by their own parliament and prime minister.

The meaning is the Queen is their ruler only as long as she doesn't try to actually rule them.

(The same is more or less the case in England itself, but is even more clear in Canada)

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    Minor nit-pick: Queen Elizabeth is Queen of England only in the same way she is Queen of Ontario. Officially she is "Queen of the United Kingdom" and of Antigua and Barbuda, Australia, The Bahamas, Barbados, Belize, Canada, Grenada, Jamaica, New Zealand, Papua New Guinea, Saint Kitts and Nevis, Saint Lucia, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, Solomon Islands and Tuvalu. You could have written "the queen of Canada" or "Queen Elizabeth of Canada". – RedGrittyBrick Jan 20 at 14:03
  • The status of "British Subject" is now obsolete in the UK. Almost anyone younger than me won't be British Subject. – Francis Davey Jan 20 at 15:17

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