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Geek Trivia: What use of the word hobbit predates Tolkien by more than a century?

An explicit, well-documented use of the word hobbit predates Tolkien's creation by well over 100 years -- and it has nothing to do with halflings, fantasy, or Middle Earth.

If you look up the word hobbit in the Oxford English Dictionary, you'll find the following definition:

hobbit /ˈhɒbɪt/ noun : a member of an imaginary race similar to humans, of small size and with hairy feet, in stories by J. R. R. Tolkien. Origin: 1937: invented by Tolkien in his book The Hobbit, and said by him to mean 'hole-dweller'

Now, when the world's most authoritative dictionary of the English language says you invented a word, that's no small matter. Doubly so for an icon like Tolkien, who was a philologist -- a scholar of historical language -- long before he conjured up some of the foundational work of epic high fantasy fiction. Triply so when you consider that the ownership of words like hobbit -- attached as they are to billion-dollar movie franchises -- can literally determine the economics of whole countries.

There's just one problem: The word hobbit predates Tolkien by centuries.

First, there is the basic etymology. The prefix hob has been associated with supernatural creatures of diminutive size for hundreds of years. No less an authority than Shakespeare described the fairy mischief-maker Puck as a hobgoblin within the folios of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" -- and that's a good 340 years before The Hobbit was written. Similar terms, some of them very close to hobbit, appear in works that predate Tolkien by nearly as many years.

Of course, that isn't an explicit use of the word hobbit, so Tolkien defenders can claim he coined the phrase even if conceding he didn't spin the word from whole cloth. There's just one problem with that line of reasoning, too. An explicit, well-documented use of the word hobbit predates Tolkien's creation by well over 100 years.

WHAT USE OF THE WORD HOBBIT PREDATES TOLKIEN'S BY MORE THAN A CENTURY?

Get the answer.

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Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

6 comments
wdg3rd
wdg3rd

My father's family came from Wales in the 1850's and went on doing what they'd done for centuries -- mine coal. My branch got out of that early in the 20th century because of a tendency to exceed six feet in height -- not really a survival trait for miners.

dimonic
dimonic

Much like business names, I am pretty sure that the use of the word Hobbit is only owned as it relates to small fictional humaoids - not in any other uses and meanings of the word (and it probably exists in some other languages as well).

Dr. Solar
Dr. Solar

I can't read the word without thinking of the high-order bit in a computer sense.

HPV
HPV

FYI: Of course Tolkien did some work on the OED. In my compact edition Twenty first printing in the US June 1981 On page ix in the Historical Introduction it lists in the third group of three under the Assistants section the name of (Prof) J.R.R. Tolkien (B.). My old OED version did not seem to mention Hobbit but it did mention Hob and to paraphrase part of one of the possible definitions it roughly formerly meant a rustic, a clown.

TomMerritt
TomMerritt

Holbyta as used in Rohan could precede Hobbit by half an age, perhaps before the time the Stoors first crossed the Andiun. Rohan's forefathers wers still living in the North in the days before Eorl, so the roots of words were just taking shape. Surprising that Beorn had never heard it.