But the idea of the eoten made it pretty far into the Middle English period before dying out. One finds it in several places — most importantly, and the reason for my post today, in the medieval romance of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. Tolkien and E.V. Gordon published an influential edition of the poem in 1925, and Tolkien subsequently translated it into Modern English alliterative verse (published posthumously in 1975).
Reading the poem in the original dialect, one finds the Old English eoten, worn down into Middle English as etayn (pl. etayne3), in two places. First, at l. 140: “Half etayn in erde I hope þat he were” , which Tolkien rendered, “that half a troll upon earth I trow that he was” , And second, at l. 723: “And etaynez, þat hym anelede of þe he3e felle” , which Tolkien rendered differently, “and with ogres that hounded him from the heights of the fells” [4, emphasis added].
Why trolls in one place and ogres in another, for the same Middle English word? Marjorie Burns has wondered about this too. In her book Perilous Realms, she observes: “etayne3 is an Anglo-Saxon word for giant, and yet both [Brian] Stone and Tolkien translate etayne3 as ogre, a word of French origin and therefore a word less appropriately northern but more typical of Arthurian tales” . Others have suggested “giant”, returning to the original sense of the word in Old English . In the glossary accompanying their edition, Tolkien and Gordon give etayn = “ogre, giant” — but again, “ogre” is a little surprising, given its Latin and Romance origins. Actually, “giant” is from Greek through French, too, so I suppose it’s no more appropriate than “ogre”, is it?
This very question came up again during the Q&A for Marjorie’s recent keynote address at Tolkien 2008 at the University of Vermont. Why did Tolkien use ogre instead of troll, which seems in so many ways more appropriate? Or perhaps Tolkien might even have retained “eoten” unchanged, as William Morris did in his translation of Beowulf, or “uncovered” a modern form, such as *etten, as he did in Ettenmoors ...
My first thought was that it might have been in deference to the Old English orcneas, which occurs in Beowulf in the richly Tolkienesque line, “eotenas ond ylfe ond orcneas swylce gigantas.” The word orcneas, another kind of giant, from which Tolkien derived his word “orc”, comes from the Latin Orcus, the Underworld (or, by association, its pagan god). Though “orc” didn’t make it into Modern English except through Tolkien’s intervention, the word does survive in Modern Italian orco, Spanish ogro (Old Spanish huergo, uerco), and French ogre, all meaning — well, it’s pretty obvious, isn’t it? ;)
Was this Tolkien’s thinking? While it might be a good theory, probably not. My well-read friend Merlin reminded me of Tom Shippey’s essay, “Tolkien and the Gawain-poet”, recently reprinted in the collection, Roots and Branches, where Shippey makes the much better case that Tolkien was attempting to reproduce the alliterative line as accurately as possible. Shippey theorizes:
Even the ‘mistakes’ of the Gawain-poet, it will be seen, tell a story to the philological mind, of which Tolkien was the twentieth century’s most prominent example. [...] A common ‘vulgarism’ much reproved by schoolteachers is ‘dropping your aitches.’ Did the Gawain-poet drop his aitches? In line 723 ‘etayne3’ alliterates with the second syllable of ‘anElede’ and is obviously meant to alliterate with ‘he3e.’ Should the latter then not be pronounced ‘e3e’? One cannot be sure, but in his translation Tolkien scrupulously follows the ‘error’ of his original: the only way to get the traditional and correct three alliterations out of Tolkien’s line is to read it as: ‘and with Ogres that ‘Ounded ‘im from the ‘Eights of the fells’ — a perfectly plausible pronunciation in the area, just as good as Standard English, and backed up not only by the Gawain-poet but once more by the Beowulf-poet, whose aitches are not above suspicion either. Imagine! This, almost certainly the correct answer, had been sitting there all along — since 1992. And Marjorie and I both missed it! (And Merlin didn’t remember it at the conference, apparently, but only after returning home.) Admittedly, this essay was pretty difficult to lay hands on until last year, but I do own a copy of the original publication (as well as the newer reprint), so I have no excuse except the failure of memory. But there you are — once again, the precision with which Tolkien made his word choices simply astounds.
 Tolkien, J.R.R. and E.V. Gordon, eds. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. London: Oxford University Press. 1925, p. 5.
 Tolkien, J.R.R., trans. Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, Pearl, and Sir Orfeo. Ed. Christopher Tolkien. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1975, p. 21.
 Tolkien and Gordon, p. 20.
 Tolkien, p. 38.
 Burns, Marjorie. Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2005, p. 186ch2n9.
 See for example, Cook, Albert Stanburrough. A Literary Middle English Reader. Boston: Ginn & Co., 1915, p. 55.
 Shippey, Tom. Roots and Branches: Selected Papers on Tolkien. Berne and Zurich: Walking Tree Publishers, 2007, p. 70–71.