Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Bagshot in Tolkien and Rowling

The name, Bagshot, should ring familiar to readers of both J.R.R. Tolkien and J.K. Rowling. Tolkien used it as a geographical name in the Shire. According to the “Nomenclature” Tolkien prepared for translators of The Lord of the Rings, it was a “[r]ow of small ‘holes’ in the lane below Bag End. (Said to have been so named because the earth removed in excavating ‘Bag End’ was shot over the edge of the sudden fall in the hillside on the ground which later became the gardens and earthwalls of the humbler dwelling.)”. Rowling, on the other hand, used it as a surname for a minor character — Bathilda Bagshot, longtime resident of Godric’s Hollow and celebrated author of A History of Magic. As it turns out, there is a precedent in the real world for both uses.

Bagshot is a genuine, well-attested place name in England — Notably, Bagshot, Surrey. The map shown above depicts the area around Bagshot, in southeastern England. To my eye, this map resembles rather closely Tolkien’s map of the Shire. I’m not suggesting the Shire map was made with this map in mind; rather, just that the names and arrangement of the English country-side are inherently Shire-like (or vice versa, to be more accurate). Even so, I trust you will note a few distinctly Tolkienian place names on the map — of which the Windle Brook is especially striking!

Like many other geographical names, Bagshot has been adopted as a personal name as well, picked up over time by residents of one Bagshot or another. Many of the early dictionaries of English surnames list it, and it came to some further prominence in The Comments of Bagshot, by J.A. Spender, collected from pieces published in the Westminster Gazette [1]. As a contemporary reviewer put it, “Bagshot is an imaginary person whom [Spender] brings into existence for the purpose of providing a circulating medium for […] aphorisms of wit and wisdom” [2]. This sounds not so unlike Sam’s Gaffer, a hobbit who lives in Bagshot Row and shares his sharp tongue and, well, perhaps not wisdom, but certainly home-spun advice with everyone in the neighborhood. Probably a coincidence, but who knows?

The etymology of the real-world name is somewhat elusive. Many etymologists suggest it is a modern form of “badger’s holt” [3]. But even if –shot(t) is a corruption of holt “a grove, wood”, as they say, it’s not quite clear to me how the old element for badger, brock, would have become bag–. Both elements would have required considerable massaging. But even so, “badger’s holt” was a common enough gloss at the time that one can see Tolkien playing on it — he did, after all, incorporate another “badgery” element in the Hobbit name, Brockhouse, and related toponyms. He also used “Badger-brock” in his poem, “The Adventures of Tom Bombadil”. Both elements — brock and holt — were certainly quite familiar to Tolkien.

Rowling’s use of the name may not be quite so calculated as Tolkien’s — though there is no denying that many of her characters sport aptronyms falling somewhere between Dickens and Tolkien. Bathilda Bagshot is no exception. Bathilda, too, is a genuine name, Germanic in form, and containing the same element hild “battle” one sees in the name of the valkyrie, Brynhildr. Rowling probably doesn’t intend readers to pick up on this; more likely, it’s a set-up for Rita Skeeter to shorten the name to “Batty”, playing on Bathilda’s senility late in the Harry Potter series. That, and the alliteration so common in Rowling’s names (cp. Dedalus Diggle; not to mention, the four founders of Hogwarts).

Whether Rowling picked up Bagshot from Tolkien, or direct from the toponymy of England, is an open question. She may even have simply invented it, independent of any source in the real world.

[1] Spender, J.A., ed. The Comments of Bagshot. London: Archibald Constable & Co., Ltd., 1908.

[2] “Mr. Alfred Spender in a New Light.” The Review of Reviews. Ed. William Thomas Stead. Vol. XXXVII (January–June, 1908), p. 105.

[3] See for example: Palmer, A. Smythe. Folk-etymology. London: George Bell & Sons, 1882, p. 519. And: Charnock, Richard Stephen. Local Etymology: A Derivative Dictionary of Geographical Names. London: Houlston & Wright, 1859, p. 246.


  1. Hi Jason, nice post.

    You lost me when you say that "it's not quite clear to me how the old element for badger, brock, would have become bag-". Surely what the etymologists mean is that the first element in Bagshot comes from badger itself, or rather, from whatever ModE badger comes from? brock is a Celtic loanword and out of the question; though the actual origin of badger is still a matter of debate.

    The OED (1st ed.) records the traditional etymology "one who carries a badge" (meaning the white mark on the badger's forehead), and appears to dismiss the older "corn-merchant" interpretation.

    A.H. Smith (1956), on the basis of things like Swed bagge 'wether, ram' and MDu bagghe 'small pig' argues that this may come from an unattested OE *bagga. That it means some wild animal and is not just a form of the proper name Bacga is supported by the fact that "a word of this form is of very frequent occurrence in combination with non-habitative terminals, chiefly denoting 'woods' and occasionally 'hills'"; and that it could be a native term and not a borrowing is suggested by its being always combined with OE elements (except in Bagholme).

    Now, the most interesting thing about all this is the possibility that this group could be related to ON baggi "bag" (thought to be the source of MidE bagge "bag"), and concludes: "An OE *bagga 'bag' must have had extensions of meaning to suit the p.ns., either topographical 'hill resembling a bag' (which would be appropriate in some p.ns.) or, as with the Swed, MDu words, 'an object or creature resembling a bag'." This theory seems to have found wide acceptance today.

    Which by devious ways brings you neatly back to Tolkien's Shirefolk-etymology of Bagshot Row (from Bag End), if bags and badgers are ultimately connected :)

    As regards the second element: -holt is reduced to -hot in Aldersho(l)t and probably Oaksho(l)t. It collides with -shot from seota (pl.) "a place where people remain" or "where animals are kept, a stall, fold, or where they feed, pastures" (e.g. Bramshott).

  2. You lost me when you say that "it's not quite clear to me how the old element for badger, brock, would have become bag-". Surely what the etymologists mean is that the first element in Bagshot comes from badger itself, or rather, from whatever ModE badger comes from?

    D’oh!! I’m sure you’re right that this is what etymologists mean. Somehow that didn’t occur to me, probably because badger is a relatively recent word (16th century, I think); whereas, Bagshot is much older. So, yes, surely brock couldn’t have become bag–, and badger is probably what they meant.

    The rest of your comment is quite interesting. I’m not completely sold that something like bag, meaning a small wild animal, would be related to a homophone meaning a bag or sack. Does a badger, ram, or a small pig really “resemble a bag”?! Still, this is the kind of theorizing that Tolkien could have been familiar with, or even engaged in.

    As regards the second element, that’s right. And it probably would have been Bags + hot (from something like “Bag’s holt”), rather than Bag + shot.

  3. Ekwall in The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names deals with Bag- under ‘Bagley’, where he runs through a variety of possible derivations: Scandinavian bagge ‘a wether, a ram’, Middle Dutch bagghe ‘a small pig’, Old English *bacga denoting some animal. More interesting is his identification of -shot under ‘Bagshot (Surrey)’ (and further explored under ‘Shottle’) as from Old English sceot ‘steep slope’. See also The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion, pp. 56-7, where we note the old dialect word shot ‘division of land’ and Oxfordshire Shotover (a hill with a steep slope), incorporating Old English ofer ‘hill, slope’. The Cambridge Dictionary of Place-names makes the Surrey Bagshot ‘Bacga’s nook’ and the one in Wiltshire ‘Beocc’s gate’. Hlaford has already cited A.H. Smith (presumably his English Place-name Elements), who goes on at length about *bagga, and also but more briefly about *sceot.

    Wayne & Christina

  4. Nothing of value to add from me - most of this is WAY over my head, so I don't know why it all fascinates me so much to read it. It does though!

    I'm a LOTR Tourguide in Wellington, New Zealand, and in love with all things Tolkien. I just thought I'd let you know how much I enjoy reading these musings every posting.

    Also, Wayne & Christina, honoured to be on the same page as you! I loved "JRR Tolkien - Artist and Illustrator" so much!

    - Jack M.

  5. Jack: Welcome, and thanks for your comment. I do hope to visit New Zealand someday.

    Wayne and Christina: thanks very much for this additional information. I think that sceot seems like a much better explanation for the second element in Bagshot than a corruption of holt. And the meaning, “steep slope”, works well with the Hill in Hobbiton, too, in spite of the cleverer etymology Tolkien offers us in the Nomenclature. :)

  6. Hi Jack,

    Nice to see that you are a fan! I found this blog shortly after finding yours, so I read both:).

    To Mr. Fisher,

    Hello Again, great post:)

  7. You know, during an open call on Hogwarts professor for allusions to other works within the Potter corpus, I suggested a possible connection between Bathilda and the Baggins's homestead. I was ignored. Now here a Tolkien speculates the very same possibility.

    Ah, vindication!

    Saturday mornings are so nice for petty remembrances.

    Peace to all.

  8. The last line of the first paragraph should read: "a Tolkien scholar." My bad, Jason.

  9. Beregond, Anders Stenström11/22/2010 1:04 PM

    "And the meaning, 'steep slope', works well with the Hill in Hobbiton, too, in spite of the cleverer etymology Tolkien offers us in the Nomenclature. :)"

    Or, you might say, in clever conjunction with it: "the earth removed in excavating 'Bag End' was *shot* over the edge of *the sudden fall* in the hillside" (my emphases).

  10. Hi, Beregond. Yes, you’re quite right: “in clever conjunction” is a very good way to put it.

  11. The village of Bagshot today is of course synonymous with upper-middle class folk, many of them retired who value the secluded lifestyle and obviously have the money to pay for it. None of them ever get involved in any "adventures" or attract any attention to themselves. I wonder if Bagshot was already like that back in Tolkien's day and whether this inspired the gentlehobbits of Tolkien's Shire?

  12. Just an insame idea of mine. The badger connection is of course a good one as the badger is an animal that builds burrows and lives underground and generally avoids being seen and is so very hobbit-like. Shippey (I think) expands the theme of bag to encompass the French "bague" meaning ring. A bague-shot is thus a place where a ring was cast from a hill. An early indicator of Frodo's destiny maybe?

  13. Thanks for the comments, Círdan. It could be, though I know of no evidence that Tolkien knew the village of Bagshot in Surrey. But he may have.

    As for Shippey, he does mention that the English word badger comes from French, but off the top of my head, I don’t recall anything about the French bague “ring”. Can you track that down and share the reference here?

    Anyway, French bague wouldn’t have been the likely source for Tolkien; he would have gone further back. The French word comes (through Low Latin) from patently Germanic sources — cp. Gothic *baugs, ON baugr, OE béag, OS bôg, OHG boug, etc.

  14. Badge(r)-holt badger from bacga
    which gets bagshot for an euphemism

    Cfr Armstadt and Dummstadt in Hessen, which swapped the D to become Darmstadt and Umstadt.

    ("stadt"="stead" etymologically="town" in meaning,
    "dumm"=US slang dumb=stupid,