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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 were in Wales trying to buy grain in the early 1800s, odds are you were dealing with hobbits. No, we're not talking about short, large-footed, and slightly hirsute hole-dwellers (you clearly have a low opinion of the 19th century Welsh) but weights and volumes. The first known use of the word hobbit is as a British, particularly Welsh, unit of measure.

Specifically, the hobbit is a derivative of the Winchester measure of units enacted by Henry VII in the late 15th century. The term had various spellings, including hobbit, hobbet, hobbett, and hobed. It was conceived as a unit of volume equal to 40 gallons. Unfortunately, much like the spelling, the definition of a hobbit varied from region to region, not least because grain-sellers began using the hobbit interchangeably as a unit of volume and weight.

A gallon of water and a gallon of grain don't weigh remotely the same, and the confusion (or willful misunderstanding of math) led to a series of lawsuits in late 1800s over the breach of contract when a buyer's definition of a hobbit and a seller's did not match. As such, the hobbit fell out of general use by Tolkien's day, though whether it became so obscure as to ensure he'd never heard the term before conjuring up one Bilbo Baggins, one cannot say.

After all, he was only a professor of historical language.

That's not just some exceedingly interesting etymology; it's a linguistically unlikely labor of Geek Trivia.

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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.