Wednesday, November 21, 2007

New thoughts on the etymology of “Tolkien”

J.R.R. Tolkien famously discussed the etymology of his own surname in a letter to his American publisher, Houghton Mifflin in 1955, where he also seemed to register some annoyance at repeated misspellings of it. This misspelling probably owes something to the frequency of a similar suffix, –stein, in German names; I run into the same thing myself when people assume that my last name must be spelled Fischer — which I hate. Even when there’s a logical reason, misspelling a prominent individual’s name is simply careless, and I can certainly understand why Tolkien would have lost patience with it. And as if spelling it incorrectly weren’t enough, many people mispronounce it, too. Tolkien himself explained: “I am nearly always written to as Tolkein [sic] (not by you): I do not know why, since it is pronounced by me always –keen.” [1] But I digress ...

Of his cognomen, Tolkien wrote the following note:

My name is TOLKIEN (not –kein). It is a German name (from Saxony), an anglicization of Tollkiehn, i.e. tollkühn. But, except as a guide to spelling, this fact is as fallacious as all facts in the raw. For I am neither ‘foolhardy’ nor German, whatever some remote ancestors may have been.” [2]

Here we have Tolkien’s typical sense of philological humor, as the German tollkühn, of course, means “foolhardy” in English. It’s a compound, actually; just as “foolish” and “hardy” are more or less antonymic in English, so are German toll “mad, crazy” and kühn “bold”. Tolkien puns on his own name in The Notion Club Papers with the invention of Rashbold — so far as I know, unattested as an anthroponym, but actually attested as an English calque for Germanic dummkúhn “foolhardy, rash, rashbold, temerarious”. [3] I wonder whether Tolkien knew this (apparently unique) source!

But though this was Tolkien’s sense of his own name, was it correct? Could there be another explanation? It’s a somewhat strange, almost denigrating meaning, isn’t it? But even so, I would never have questioned this etymology had I not come across a rather arcane volume called The Teutonic Name-System Applied to the Family Names of France, England, and Germany. This surprising treasure trove takes a topical / etymological approach to anthroponymy, with introductory chapters on simple forms, diminutives, phonetic additions, patronymics, compounds, and so forth; followed by more fascinating chapters on Our Natural Enemies, The Brute and Its Attributes, The Gods of the North, and The Station in Life, among many, many others. In a chapter called The Warrior and His Arms, we find the surname Tolkien attested, like so:

The following root seems to be referable to Old Norse dolgr, foe, Ang.-Sax. dolg, vulnus [Latin “wound, injury”]. SIMPLE FORMS. Old Germ. Tulga (West Gothic king, 7th cent.), Tulcho. Eng. TULK. Mod. Germ. DULK. PHONETIC ENDING. Old Germ. Tolcon, 10th cent. Eng. TOLKIEN, TOLKEN. Mod. Germ. DULCKEN. [4]

As a side note, is the similarity between the names Tolkien and Tulkas a mere coincidence? Probably, but it’s tantalizing fodder for wild theories nonetheless! ;)

Does it make more sense for the etymology of one’s surname to refer to foes, weapons, wounds, and so forth, than to a state of foolhardiness (by which attitude I suppose one might have acquired more than one’s share of wounds, hahae)? I don’t know. Was Robert Ferguson right about its origins (e.g., he does not explain, merely asserts, the arrival of the –n)? Again, I don’t know. But it is interesting to see the name attested, on record, and with a very different etymology. Would that I could ask the Professor about it. I am sure it would have made for a very lively discussion!

[1] Tolkien, J.R.R. The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien. Selected and edited by Humphrey Carpenter. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1981, p.428.

[2] Ibid., p.218.

[3] Bailey-Fahrenkrüger’s Wörterbuch der Englischen Sprache. Zwölfte Auflage, gänzlich umgearbeitet von [Twelfth edition, completely reworked by] Adolf Wagner. Jena: Friedrich Frommann, 1822, p.182.

[4] Ferguson, Robert. The Teutonic Name-System Applied to the Family Names of France, England, and Germany. London: Williams & Norgate, 1864, p.184.


  1. "I run into the same thing myself when people assume that my last name must be spelled Fischer — which I hate [....] misspelling a prominent individual’s name is simply careless."

    Hahae, just because you made it onto Amazon's Top 10,000 reviewers doesn't mean you should let your ego run away with you. LOL! ;)

  2. You and your damnable mock-scholarly edits!! *shaking fist comically in the air*

    And I’ve since dropped back below (err, above) 10,000 on the Amazon Reviewers’ ranking. Time to do some more reviews! Who knew that maintaining “prominent individual” status would be so time-consuming?! ;)

  3. I can’t believe nobody else has commented on this! It’s heresy, calling into question something Tolkien himself wrote, isn’t it? Heresy, I say!! :)

    Maybe it’s postprandial Thanksgiving sedation (here in America, anyway). Too much tryptophan, perhaps? All I know is, it’s a sad state of affairs when I have to idly comment on my own posts, hahae.

    PS. If people start Googling “postprandial Thanksgiving sedation”, I’m gonna be rolling in pageviews! ;)

    PPS. Okay, I admit it: I’m just bored.

  4. The time goes on the some ideas come back :D

  5. Thank you, Jason, for your diligence and undying passion to words as containers of (all sorts of interesting) meaning.

    I will admit it takes a special brain (mind) to notice such things - one that is admittedly rare, but I for one salute you and know the true value of your work to humanity as a whole.

    Know that the knowledge/information/wisdom you attain influences the greater sphere of Knowledge without you ever needing to utter a word to another as You yourself ARE the Transmitter of the Knowledge you attain.

    Sharing your Work makes this process simply go faster but the effects of our efforts may not always appear where we think they should (such as right here on your blog).

    With True Appreciation, Galadriel.