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I have been browsing through A Glossary of Tudor and Stuart Words, Especially from the Dramatists by Walter W. Skeat (completed by A. L. Mayhew and published in 1914). It contains several entries that should sound familiar to readers of J. R. R. Tolkien's work. For example:

azoch, ‘azoth’, the alchemist's name for quicksilver. B. Jonson, Alchemist, ii. 1 (Surly). Also spelt assogue. F. assogue; Span. azogue, quicksilver; Arab. az-zāūq; zāūq is adapted from Pers. zhiwah (jivah), quicksilver. See NED., Ducange, and Dozy, Glossaire (s.v. Azogue).

bilbo, a sword of excellent quality. Merry Wives, iii. 5. 112. Hence, one who wears a bilbo, id. i. 1. 165. From Bilbao (E. Bilboa) in Spain.

One easily recognizes the names Azog and Bilbo. (Azog is actually white in the film version; his role in the novel is much smaller.) Tolkien was professor of Anglo-Saxon, but the above example don't derive from Old English (Old English origins of dictionary entries are always mentioned in Skeat's Glossary).

So my question is: did J. R. R. Tolkien, or possibly his son Christopher Tolkien, ever write about how he drew inspiration for certain character names from literature written in Early Modern English?

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  • 2
    Appendix F has a lot of stuff written by Tolkien himself about comparisons between his fictional languages and analogous real-world languages. It's written from an almost in-universe point of view, Tolkien as the 'translator' of the 'Red Book' discussing the methodology he used to translate words from Westron, Elvish, etc. so that they'd have a familiar ring to modern English readers. Is this the kind of info you're looking for, or have you already read Appendix F and want more than is there?
    – Rand al'Thor
    Nov 26, 2017 at 20:42
  • @Randal'Thor Oh, thanks. I haven't read Appendix F. I'll take a look when I can unearth my copy of LotR.
    – Tsundoku
    Nov 26, 2017 at 20:47
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    I should point out that almost all the dwarf names in The Hobbit as well as Gandalf's name and the term "Warg" are straight out of the Poetic Edda. Tolkien, as a philologist, was very much familiar with Old English and Old Norse in particular, though of course also other languages, and sketched his languages to reflect them, and so names sound the same or similar. The dwarves' language, for example, is Semitic in origin. (You may also wish to check out the Conlang beta.)
    – auden
    Apr 3, 2018 at 19:38

2 Answers 2

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Bilbo:

The Hobbits spoke Westron, the common tongue, but retained what little was left of their own language for things like personal names and days of the week:

And in those days* also they forgot whatever languages they had used before, and spoke ever after the Common Speech, the Westron as it was named, that was current through all the lands of the kings from Arnor to Gondor, and about all the coasts of the Sea from Belfalas to Lune. Yet they kept a few words of their own, as well as their own names of months and days, and a great store of personal names out of the past.

From the Prologue, part I., "Concerning Hobbits" (pg 4 in my copy).

(*: "those days" were when the hobbits had for the most part stopped their wanderings and had begun to settle in Bree, near what became the Shire.)

Bilbo being a proper name, it must have come from their old language. Knowing that the dwarven names come from the Elder Edda, and so forth, it is not unreasonable to assume there is a source for these proper names.

Letter 25 notes:

The hobbit-names [are] from Obvious Sources proper to their kind.

The question then, of course, is what exactly these "Obvious Sources" are. (The phrase "proper to their kind" is also intriguing as many have compared hobbits to the British servicemen in war who Tolkien so admired - see for example the work of Joseph Loconte.)

In Letter 72, Tolkien writes:

Hobbits of that class have very Saxon names as a rule

Which is quite enlightening. The dictionary notes of Saxon:

relating to the Anglo-Saxons, their language (Old English), or their period of dominance in England (5th–11th centuries).

Looking at the word origin of Bilbo, it seems to come from bilboa and bilbao, both of which are purely English in origin. Tolkien, as a professor of English, would probably been aware of these words, and might have been influenced by it, especially as Bilbo owns the sword Sting, of Elvish make (therefore a good blade).

However, there is another twist to this (thanks to the comments for pointing this out) - the "that class" here refers to hobbits of the class of Samwise and his Gaffer; Bilbo as a Baggins would not be of this class but a higher one, and thus this line crumbles a bit.

I will note that also in Letter 25 it says:

The language of the Hobbits was remarkably like English [...] Their family names remain for the most part as well known and justly respected in this island as they were in Hobbiton and Bywater.

This also seems to indicate that the proper names were English.

Azog:

The orcish languages were not exactly consistent, as often the orcs of different regions would due to arguing come up with their own often very different dialects; the languages were often limited and angry, a true perversion of the elvish languages. It is therefore surprising to me that a possible source could come from English, as the orcish and black speeches may well have come from Hittite and Hurrian (see here), and it also seems odd that Tolkien would wish to associate the language of his native country with some of the most repugnant creatures in his works.

According to the Tolkien Gateway:

The meaning and origin of the name Azog is unknown. It is most likely a name in the Black Speech (e.g., the similarity between azog and nazg), though Mágol may also be a possibility. Andreas Moehn has noted an apparent but tentative link with Mannish, in the Adunaic word zagar meaning "sword", in which case Azog might refer to "warrior" or anything similar.

(Nazg means [finger]-ring or [magic]-ring.)

If it did come from Black Speech, as likely, that would indicate a very low probability that that is association with your 'azoch'/'azoth'. Adunaic, on the other hand, is more interesting. Adunaic was the speech of the Numenoreans, which derived to some extent from the Elvish languages (as the Numenoreans were those who were gifted by the Elves, so they were very aware of Elvish languages) though with some distinctions. For example, it has some of the characteristics of Khuzdul (the language of the dwarves), and also has noun classes. Westron then derived from Adunaic.

The language of the Rohirrim is an archaic relative of Westron similar to Old English, therefore by taking this route it is not completely unlikely that 'Azog' may have had its origins in 'azoch'/'azoth', but for in-universe reasons I am disinclined to believe this the case (as stated above).

There is yet a third possible route. The black speech (probably) was based upon, as said earlier, hittite and hurrian, and a not insignificant selection of orcish dialects were probably based upon this as the orcs were created (or rather perverted) by Morgoth, and Sauron was his lieutenant (see Silmarillion) but there were some orcish dialects that were based upon Westron, according to Robert Foster's Guide to Middle-Earth under 'Westron', though it should be noted that this book was published before the History of Middle Earth series and its associated information came out.

If the orcs Azog was among used such a Westron-based language, I would still, however, have some doubt in my mind as to whether this was an association Tolkien would make.

It then gets more confusing when one comes to the 'Orc' section in the same book. Here it says that the more Westron based orcish dialects were used for communication between tribes, whereas more black-speech based dialects which varied dramatically from tribe to tribe were used within tribes. If this is the case then the personal name of Azog probably still came from this black-speech based dialect; under 'Black Speech' it says that many Mordor orcs, indeed, had their names in a "debased" form of black speech; then again, Azog wasn't necessarily a Mordor-orc, though he could have been.

An important note

It should also be noted that Westron is represented as English in the book, but the whole book is represented as translated, so the names that we're referencing weren't the actual names, but the translated names, which I'll admit gets kind of confusing. For more information on this bit, see the font of all knowledge, Wikipedia or Appendix F of the Lord of the Rings.

To summarize the situation as best I can: since Westron was the most commonly spoken language in Middle Earth, Tolkien treated that language as English and then worked from there so that languages closely related to Westron, like the language of the Rohirrim, were treated accordingly. Thus the language of the Rohirrim comes out much like Old English. In other words, Tolkien as the translator represented this world as if it was ours and the legends in our tongues (sort of; his own versions of our tongues with a few others added in).

General resources

I would check the conlang stack exchange which allows questions on Tolkien's languages. I'd also take a look at this website (one of the most detailed and well-sourced descriptions I've found of Tolkien's various languages). Finally, check out the History of Middle Earth, especially, in the case of this question, volume 12, The Peoples of Middle Earth, which, to quote the above site,

The Peoples of Middle-earth gives many more "original" forms of the names Anglicized by Tolkien than the ones mentioned in the appendices to LotR.

A final small note: Tolkien didn't exactly like Shakespeare; he wrote the story of the Ents marching on Orthanc because he did not like the way the marching of the forest was portrayed in Macbeth; he also did not like Shakespeare's writing of Elves. Hopefully this helps.

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  • Nicely researched answer! One suggestion: I'd make the paragraph beginning "It should also be noted that Westron is represented as English in the book, but the whole book is represented as translated ..." more prominent in the answer. Because this mostly reads like a study of in-universe etymology while the question asks for out-of-universe etymology, and it's important for the reader to realise that these are near-equivalent. Also, if you want a better source than Wikipedia for that paragraph, LotR Appendix F has some good discussion of that.
    – Rand al'Thor
    May 5, 2018 at 16:24
  • Isn't "that class" of the letter referring to Sam and his father, i.e. a class below Bilbo's? Compare with the more upper-class Brandybucks, which seem to use Gaelic names, and the Tooks, which were possibly the foremost family, and used Latin.
    – andejons
    May 5, 2018 at 19:48
  • @andejons I have updated my answer to address this. I might also note that interestingly, while Brandybucks may use Gaelic and Tooks, Latin (I've never noticed this, thank you for saying that) the name Baggins is Anglo-Saxon, so it could be that that is the language associated with that family.
    – auden
    May 5, 2018 at 19:56
  • Indeed. Tolkien's letter does not rule out the possibility, and there does not appear to be any better explanation, so the etymology still seems valid.
    – andejons
    May 5, 2018 at 20:18
  • I wasn't aware of "bilbo" as an old word for a kind of sword, so when I encountered the name Bilbo in Tolkien it reminded me of the United States Senator Theodore Bilbo, Democrat and Klansman, "whose name was a synonym for white supremacy" as Wikipedia says. I'll bet Tolkien never heard of the senator.
    – user14111
    May 5, 2018 at 20:59
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Guy Davenport claimed that Tolkien was curious about Kentucky surnames and may have used them for Hobbit surnames. In his 1979 New York Times article Hobbits in Kentucky, Davenport recalls Tolkien as a professor and, crucially, Davenport relates his interviews with an Oxford classmate of Tolkien's named Allen Barnett, of Kentucky:

The closest I have ever gotten to the secret and inner Tolkien was in a casual conversation on a snowy day in Shelbyville, Kentucky. I forget how in the world we came to talk of Tolkien at all, but I began plying questions as soon as I knew that I was talking to a man who had been at Oxford as a classmate of Ronald Tolkien’s. He was a history teacher, Allen Barnett. He had never read The Hobbit or The Lord of the Rings. Indeed, he was astonished and pleased to know that his friend of so many years ago had made a name for himself as a writer.

“Imagine that! You know, he used to have the most extraordinary interest in the people here in Kentucky. He could never get enough of my tales of Kentucky folk. He used to make me repeat family names like Barefoot and Boffin and Baggins and good country names like that.” And out the window I could see tobacco barns. The charming anachronism of the hobbits’ pipes suddenly made sense in a new way. The Shire and its settled manners and shy hobbits have many antecedents in folklore and in reality — I remember the fun recently of looking out of an English bus and seeing a roadsign pointing to Butterbur. Kentucky, seems, contributed its share.

Did these names leave England with the Mayflower (so to speak), and return when Tolkien re-patriated them in his novels? Or did they develop in Kentucky from other origins? That would be an interesting research question.

Davenport also notes that certain elements of Hobbit diction are similar to Kentucky diction:

Practically all the names of Tolkien’s hobbits are listed in my Lexington phone book, and those that aren’t can be found over in Shelbyville. Like as not, they grow and cure pipe-weed for a living. Talk with them, and their turns of phrase are pure hobbit: “I hear tell,” “right agin,” “so Mr. Frodo is his first and second cousin, once removed either way,” “this very month as is.” These are English locutions, of course, but ones that are heard oftener now in Kentucky than in England.

Kentucky (formerly part of Virginia) has a long history of tobacco farming.

I wonder to what extent there are surnames in Kentucky that no longer exist in England.

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