Tuesday, January 15, 2013

“More like a grocer than a burglar”

I’m sure all of you remember Gloin’s rather unflattering first impression of Bilbo in the first chapter of The Hobbit:
Humph! […] Will he do, do you think? It is all very well for Gandalf to talk about this hobbit being fierce, but one shriek like that in a moment of excitement would be enough to wake the dragon and all his relatives, and kill the lot of us. I think it sounded more like fright than excitement! In fact, if it had not been for the sign on the door, I should have been sure we had come to the wrong house. As soon as I clapped eyes on the little fellow bobbing and puffing on the mat, I had my doubts. He looks more like a grocer than a burglar!
But as we know, first impressions can be deceiving. Over the course of their journey together, Bilbo redeems himself in the dwarves’ eyes many times over, finally declaring in Smaug’s lair, “I’ve done it! This will show them. ‘More like a grocer than a burglar’ indeed! Well, we’ll hear no more of that.”

This is all very obvious, I know, but I mention this to set up a point of comparison in The Lord of the Rings. I can’t recall ever having seen this observation before, and to refresh my memory, I even made a quick search of most of the usual works in the secondary literature. If anyone of you has seen this before, please let me know where!

Gloin’s comments above are quoted from the first chapter of The Hobbit, as I said. As all of us here know, the first chapter of The Lord of the Rings shows a number of parallels with its predecessor (as indeed does the entire novel). To name a few:

  • both novels features parties, one totally unexpected, the other long-anticipated
  • in The Hobbit, Gandalf’s fireworks are recalled; in The Lord of the Rings, they’re actually seen
  • both witness the reappearance in the Shire of Gandalf after a long absence
  • both have Bilbo suddenly departing from his home without telling people where he’s going
  • both feature prominent anachronisms: mantel-clocks, post offices, express trains
  • both include legal paperwork by the clock on the mantel in Bag End: an employment contract in The Hobbit, a will and other documents in The Lord of the Rings
  • both describe a wish to travel and to see mountains; etc.

You may see where I am going with this line of comparison. Is there something in The Lord of the Rings to line up with Gloin’s character-ization of Bilbo as being “more like a grocer than a burglar”? I think there is. And now that I’ve focused your attention, perhaps you can guess what the connection might be.

We are told that the special family dinner-party for Bilbo and Frodo’s combined birthday celebration “was held in the great pavilion with the tree. The invitations were limited to twelve dozen (a number also called by the hobbits one Gross, though the word was not considered proper to use of people); and the guests were selected from all the families to which Bilbo and Frodo were related, with the addition of a few special unrelated friends (such as Gandalf).” A bit later, Bilbo alludes to the number in his postprandial speech. Bilbo is turning eleventy-one, Frodo thirty-three, thus:
Together we score one hundred and forty-four. Your numbers were chosen to fit this remarkable total: One Gross, if I may use the expression. No cheers. This was ridiculous. Many of his guests, and especially the Sackville-Bagginses, were insulted, feeling sure they had only been asked to fill up the required number, like goods in a package. ‘One Gross, indeed! Vulgar expression.’
Do you see the connection?

A grocer was originally “one who buys and sells in the gross, i.e. in large quantities, a wholesale dealer or merchant” (OED). Like “burglar”, but unlike so many others of Tolkien’s carefully chosen words, “grocer” is of French origin. It first appears in English in the fifteenth century, spelled grosser. Before that, we can trace its etymology backward to Anglo-Norman French grosser “a bulk merchant” < Old French grossier, agentive of gros “large”, and also meaning “a bulk merchant”, but earlier meaning more generically any “enlarger” < Medieval Latin grossārius “bulk merchant”. The original ss became c under the influence of a related vocation, “spicer”, cf. French épicier, the normal equivalent to our word, “grocer”. Interestingly, Wright’s English Dialect Dictionary shows that in certain regions alternate spellings persisted into the twentieth-century, including grosser, grozier, and grosher (the word is often pronounced this way in American English even though spelled grocer).

So, you see, Bilbo’s socially inept use of the word gross, especially applying it to people, actually befits somebody who is, or at least, appears on the surface to be, “more a grocer than a burglar”. Even after his earlier adventures, he still grosses up his neighbors and family without hesitation.

Wayne Hammond and Christina Scull have pointed out that Tolkien is punning on gross in the nominal sense of a number (a dozen dozens) as well as in the adjectival sense of “fat, coarse, unrefined”, probably applicable to most hobbits, and they also point out Tolkien’s use of “engrossing” nearby (The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion, p. 68). But I think Tolkien was further punning on grocer = grosser, one who deals in grosses, whether they be goods in a package or hobbits. It might have been unintentional, but I doubt it. In any case, intentional or not, it’s another enjoyable point of contact (and a subtle one) between the opening chapters of these two great works of Middle-earth.


  1. That's a fun connection, I hadn't noticed before! Thanks for the detailed explanation.

  2. Brilliant. How do you _come up_ with these ideas, Jason? :)

  3. Thanks, y’all! As for where I come up these ideas, I think a lot of it comes from the fact that I do a great deal of reading and thinking about language and etymology, and then sometimes inspiration just strikes. :)

  4. Love it, despite being late to comment. Though I think you meant "coarse" and not "course"...?

  5. Yes, so I did. Thanks, Lynn.