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Something which strikes me both while reading the book and watching the movie is the very striking name "Wormtongue". He might as well be named "Evil Dude".

He seems over-the-top sleazy and destructive, even looking downright evil and insane. Why do they allow him to give "advice" to the king when he is so obviously a bad influence and with such a revealing name?

  • I found the answers too direct to really explain why this name would have been used directly at the time Grima was alive, and thus I added a possible explanation of the apparition of this "revealing name" in the book [and thus, the film as well] – Olivier Dulac Sep 20 at 2:59
  • I think the over-the-top sleazy, destructive etc. look can be credited mostly to Peter Jackson. I don't recall Tolkien's description of him being quite so slimy, at least in appearance. In my head he looks more like, say, Littlefinger in Game of Thrones (which I think that show cast accurately to the books in that case). Smarmy and weaselly, maybe, but not the cartoon-villain troglodyte they had in the movies. – Darrel Hoffman Sep 21 at 13:59
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No, except yes

TL;DR: ‘Wormtongue’ is a deliberately negative name given by his enemies, so it can’t be faulted for being pejorative, even if it’s not as unflattering as it might seem to modern ears. But ‘Gríma’ itself isn’t much better!

As Mary points out, ‘Wormtongue’ is a nickname applied to Gríma by his opponents (which, Gandalf implies, is everyone but Théoden). We’re not told exactly how Gríma—a sly schemer in a kingdom where warlike deeds are prized—came to be so influential, but it certainly seems to be due to his cunning with words. His depressing speech to Éowyn in the movie is actually Gandalf’s description of her in the book, but we do get some other examples of Gríma swaying people with words, and even an almost-complimentary response from Gandalf when he calls him ‘bold and cunning… he plays a game with peril and wins a throw.’

So the name Wormtongue is well earned. Keep in mind that a ‘worm’ doesn’t have to be an earthworm, tapeworm, or anything else we call a ‘worm’ in modern English. Historically any narrow creeping or crawling animal (snakes, slugs, caterpillars) could be termed a ‘worm’. In legend and Tolkien, it’s used for dragons, too, and Smaug certainly had a gift of cunning speech. Here, though, I think the reference is more likely to be to a snake; Gandalf calls Gríma a snake more than once. So ‘Snaketongue’, or maybe ‘Dragontongue’, is perhaps a less ‘Evildude’ rendering of the nickname.

But with all that said… the name Gríma itself is not very positive. Like other examples of the Rohirric language, it’s a real word borrowed from Old English. It means ‘mask’ or ‘secret’, also ‘spectre’, and most positively ‘helmet’ (but we know Helm was a Rohirric name with positive connotations, and it seems unlikely that Gríma would be treated as a synonym). It gets even worse when we consider his father’s name, Gálmód, meaning ‘wanton’! (So bad, in fact, that I’ve encountered the theory that it wasn’t really his father’s name, and that ‘son of Gálmód’ was an insult Gandalf made up.)

And this is all in keeping with Gríma’s likely inspiration in the character of Unferth, from Beowulf, whose name Tolkien interpreted as ‘un-peace’ or ‘quarrel’. A sly advisor to the king, opposing the hero(es), bearing an unflattering name? Sounds familiar…

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  • If all else fails in understanding the etymology of a given name, consider a 'worm' in the digital age is creeping malicious program that digs tunnels in the programming code of the computers brain. – G Warner Sep 19 at 14:35
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    @GWarner ...and the Two Towers was written in the early 1950's by a 62 year old professor of literature and language and borderline Luddite (sorta not really) - so it's not really a relevant application in any way ;) – NKCampbell Sep 19 at 17:04
  • "Forked tongue" is a a description applied to liars IRL, "snake tongue" implies this. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Forked_tongue – Jasen Sep 20 at 3:20
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    @Jasen: Indeed, and Gandalf tells Gríma to ‘keep your forked tongue behind your teeth’, which together with explicitly calling him a ‘snake’ is why I believe ‘snake’ is the intended sense of ‘worm’ in ‘Wormtongue’. – Tim Pederick Sep 20 at 4:32
  • One could also imagine that Tolkien-as-translator took some artistic liberties in choosing an Old English name to "translate" the actual Rohirric name of the character, as doing so doesn't really affect the narrative. – chepner Sep 20 at 16:31
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Grima calls Gandalf "Lathspell" -- Ill News -- because he hated him and wanted Theoden to mistrust him.

Likewise, "Wormtongue" is what people who already hate him call him. It is true that Gandalf says to Theoden "him that all but you call Wormtongue," but that was probably a slow development. People call him that to urge others to mistrust him and naturally picked the most loaded name they could.

The looks, however, are Jackson's choice. He's less impressively and obviously evil in the book.

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  • I would add to your last paragraph that the looks are also very much the product of the skill of the actor Brad Dourif. – Lee Mosher Sep 20 at 18:51
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Hello and welcome to this site!

As you note, that name is a bit too revealing, and Tolkien is much too subtle to have used it if he didn’t have a particular reason, in my opinion:

An important thing to consider is that the books The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings were both intended (by Tolkien, in at least several occasions) to be seen as transcriptions taken by Tolkien from the Red Book of Westmarch (written by hobbits).

As hobbits have their own way of valuing truthfulness (and a simple life), it makes sense that they would despise Gríma deeply, and thus write him in that book under the foulest name he was given by the people around them at the time. He may have been known by the King under a nicer name (Gríma?) until Gandalf pointed out to him that most others at that time called him “Wormtongue”, and thus Gríma Wormtongue is what the Red Book’s authors chose to name him when writing about those events.

That surname (Wormtongue) may also have been intended by Tolkien to be (from the people calling him, or from the literate Bilbo of Frodo themselves) a hint at a famous Worm’s tongue far in the past (specifically: the sweet/foul talking of the Dragon Glaurung, that also used his cunning and treacherous ways to abuse and fool Túrin Turambar, back in Middle Earth’s First Age).

Note: Túrin and Glaurung can be read about in several books, the first being the marvellous The Silmarillion, which everyone who likes The Lord of the Rings should read: for the first few chapters, just write the names of the Valar, Maiar, kings and queens, and just keep on reading! It eases up quickly and becomes epic and awe inspiring, and includes some of the best tales Tolkien every wrote. It really shows how deep the world is, as some of its materials predate The Lord of the Rings by more than 20 years, and Tolkien kept working on parts until well after that novel was published, and it took some more years for his son Christopher to put together the most coherent versions of each of those parts and publish them in The Silmarillion.

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