Monday, August 9, 2010

Tookish musings

Took is one of the few names Tolkien claims not to have “Englished” — that is, adapted into the translation conceit by which he explained so many other names. These “one or two older names of forgotten meaning [which Tolkien was] content to anglicize in spelling” in-cluded “Took for Tûk and Boffin for Bophîn”. [1] In the “Nomenclature”, Tolkien echoes this: “Took. Hobbit-name of unknown origin representing actual Hobbit Tūk […]. It should thus be kept and spelt phonetically according to the LT [i.e., the Language of Translation].” [2]

From a story-internal point of view, this is perfectly plausible, but from the story-external vantage, why wouldn’t Tolkien just “come up with something”? A possible answer is that he was stuck with Took from The Hobbit, long before Middle-earth had come into focus and the translation conceit entered Tolkien’s mind, and he simply couldn’t think of anything. Or perhaps there was a source, but it simply wasn’t appropriate for or adaptable to The Lord of the Rings.

I’m not aware of any real source criticism on this name, not even by my friend, Mark Hooker, who has worked his way pretty systematically through the “Nomenclature”. Perhaps the claim of invention on Tolkien’s part has discouraged scholars and dictionary divers. But let’s not be discouraged!

It turns out that Took, like Boffin, Grubb, Bolger, so many others of the Shire and Bree, is a real British surname. Ernest Weekley points out that the genuine name, Tooke, derives from the Anglo-Saxon Toca. [3] The Anglo-Saxon name, in turn, apparently derived from an Old Norse name Tóki, but had become naturalized in the southern part of England by the 11th century. [4] Tom Shippey has noted the survival of the name: “As for ‘Took’, that too appears a faintly comic name in modern English (people prefer to respell it ‘Tooke’), but it is only the ordinary Northern pronunciation of the very common ‘Tuck’” [5].

Another possibility: it occurs to me that Tolkien might even have chosen Took as the name for his most adventurous hobbit-family in facetious reference to his own name, Tolkien, which glosses (more or less) as “foolhardy”. If so, then this would seem a perfectly appropriate choice.

So, it’s pretty clear to me that Tolkien might have resurrected the genuine English Took(e), just as he did Gamgee, Brandybuck, Bracegirdle, Hornblower, and all the rest. And/or he may have been thinking of the etymology of his own name. Is there any more to be said? Yes, just a little, and here’s where things get more interesting — but more wildly speculative. It just so happens, there was a rather well-known philologist by the name of Tooke!

John Horne Tooke (1736–1812) was a Cambridge-educated etymologist and politician. His best-known work, Επεα Πτεροεντα, or the Diversions of Purley (1786), is a collection of philological dialogues on subjects such as: “Of the Division or Distribution of Language”, “Etymology of the English Conjunctions”, “Of the Article and Interjection”, “Of Participles”, and so on. The kind of thing that was right up Tolkien’s street.

In 1805, a reviewer assessed Horne Tooke’s impact on lexicography, thus: “to him the English language owes the pristine introduction of just principles, and a most extensive, learned, and detailed application of them to the etymology of its terms. He has laid the groundwork for a good Dictionary” [6]. But this was an early opinion. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was more critical, writing in 1830 that, although “Horne Tooke was pre-eminently a ready-witted man[, h]e had that clearness which is founded on shallow-ness. He doubted nothing; and, therefore, gave you all that he himself knew, or meant, with great completeness. […] All that is worth any thing (and that is but little) in the Diversions of Purley is contained in a short pamphlet-letter […]” [7].

Indeed, philology has come a long way since Horne Tooke’s days. Most of his ideas have been superseded or proven patently wrong (e.g., his etymology for “Shire” [8] is clearly incorrect [9]). He is viewed nowadays as somewhat of a crackpot. [10] But there can be no doubt that Diversions of Purley made quite a splash, one whose ripples were felt throughout the 19th century, inspiring both argument and imitation. It was clearly a part of the zeitgeist of the century, the lexicographical culmination of which was the launching of A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles (now known as the Oxford English Dictionary). Tolkien himself was employed by the OED in 1919–20. I do not know of any evidence that Tolkien was aware of Horne Tooke or his philological work more than a century before, but James Murray, one of the original editors of the OED, certainly was [11]. Murray died shortly before Tolkien’s appointment to the Dictionary, but it is tantalizing to think that Tolkien might have learned of Horne Tooke during his tenure in the Old Ashmolean. I know of no reason to assume he didn’t know of him.

Assuming Tolkien learned of Horne Tooke, perhaps even read his work, is it possible the name stuck in his mind, only to reappear a decade or so later as an “Englishy” surname in his children’s book, The Hobbit? A notorious philologist named Horne Tooke is tempting quarry. Even Horne, suggesting a musical instrument, faintly recalls the hobbit names Hornblower and Bullroarer. It’s probably just coincidence, but it’s certainly not impossible that the name influenced Tolkien. After all, Tolkien made reference to lexicography elsewhere in his fiction, as in the “four wise clerks of Oxenford” in Farmer Giles of Ham.

[1] Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings, Appendix F, III.

[2] Tolkien, “Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings”, in Hammond, Wayne G., and Christina Scull. The Lord of the Rings: A Reader’s Companion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2005. 750–782, p. 764.

[3] Weekley, Ernest. The Romance of Names. 3rd rev. ed. London: John Murray, 1922, p. 75.

[4] Smart, Veronica J. , 280. “Moneyers of the Late Anglo-Saxon Coinage: the Danish Dynasty, 1017–42.” Anglo-Saxon England 16. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987. 233–308, p. 280

[5] Shippey, Tom. The Road to Middle-earth: How J.R.R. Tolkien Created a New Mythology. Rev. and exp. ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2003, p. 103. I’m not sure Tom is correct that Tooke and Tuck are the same name; I’ve read contrary views. Tuck and Tucker seem to be vocational names, but I’ve seen no such theory advanced for Tooke. But I’ll keep looking.

[6] Quoted in Tooke, John Horne. Επεα Πτεροεντα, or, The Diversions of Purley. New ed., rev. and corrected, with notes, by Richard Taylor. London: Thomas Tegg, 1840, p. xiv.

[7] Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Specimens of the Table Talk of Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Ed. Henry Nelson Coleridge. 2nd ed. London: John Murray, 1836, p. 62 (see also passim).

[8] Tooke, p. 424.

[9] See for example, Skeat, Walter W. An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language. 3rd. ed. Oxford: The Clarendon Press, 1898, p. 548.

[10] See Lynch, Jack. The Lexicographer’s Dilemma: The Evolution of ‘Proper’ English, from Shakespeare to South Park. New York : Walker & Co., 2009.

[11] See Mugglestone, Lynda. Lost for Words: The Hidden History of the Oxford English Dictionary. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2005.


  1. Despite the garblings of Wikipedia, "Horne Tooke" was his adopted surname, not just "Tooke". I don't doubt that Tolkien knew perfectly well who he was.

  2. Thanks for that correction, John. I’ve made some small adjustments here and there to take this into account (I will note that Lynda Mugglestone indexed him under T, not H.). Do you have any special reason to assume Tolkien was familiar with him? I agree it seems likely, but without documentary evidence, it’s still just a guess.

  3. It would be quite easy to have heard of Horne Tooke, as he was famous for more than his philology: he was put on trial for treason in November 1794 and acquitted. Tokens were issued commemorating this, and you can see one here; not too much importance should be placed on that, as the lawyers in question liked to celebrate their victories this way, but there are at least multiple routes that might have brought him to the notice of antiquarians.

  4. Fascinating! Thank you for sharing that, Jonathan. The obverse of that coin would have probably made a better illustration for this post, had I known of it. To pursue this further, I’d like to find a conspicuous reference to Tooke in a work we know Tolkien knew, since I know of no direct references by Tolkien himself. It’s always possible that unpublished notes and letters might bring a direct reference to light in the future; but until then, however likely that he knew of him, we lack direct evidence.

  5. The OED quotes "H. Tooke - Purley" very often (60 times or so), especially for his usage of 'grammar' words ('adjective', 'adsignification', 'conditional', 'connotation', 'etymology' etc.), so there you have a work Tolkien knew well :) Tolkien may not have referred to these entries, but you can reasonably assume that Tooke's work was in use in the Old Ashmolean.

    [A quick glance at Tooke's book with Tolkien's lexicographical work in mind didn't produce anything worth noticing, but closer comparison may do better. A footnote in the 1857 edition (by Ch. Robinson), p. 514, mentions the supposed relationship between 'horse' and 'walrus', a suggestion which Tolkien dismisses in his own entry for the OED. According to 'The Ring of Words' p. 23 he kept studying this word afterwards, as attested by a notebook 'containing many pages of notes on walrus'. (The notebook dates from the Leeds period, and is now in the Bodleian.)]

  6. Ah, there we are! That is certainly helpful for attempting to transform possibilities into plausibilities. Thanks for noting this, Hlaford. Were there world enough and time, this was on my list of things to go through with a fine-toothed comb, along with Tolkien’s YWES essays, and one or two other things. I had also thought to look through Jesperson and some other philological works of the period, on which Tolkien commented in those essays. Crowd-sourcing will certainly save me some time. :)

  7. other variations of Took are Tuck and Tucker.

    Took means "fool" (similar to Tolkein, wise fool)

    But Tucker/tooker is an old name for "fuller", i.e. a fuller of cloth.

    There are a lot of fiber surnames connected with Sam: Gamgee (cotton wool), Cotton and Andy Roper. But there doesn't seem to be a geneological connection with the Took clan, so I assume he is using the name that implies foolishness.,

  8. Hi, boinky. Thanks for your thoughts. :)

    As I wrote in note #5 above, I’m not so sure that Took(e) and Tuck(er) are related names. Some say yes, some say no. Weekley says that Old English Toca > Tooke, but Tucca > Tuck(er). Now, I’m not so sure Weekley is right to identify Tucca as Anglo-Saxon in origin — it’s a name known in Latin from antiquity (and taken up again in the Renaissance) — but the name could easily have come to Roman Britain from the Mediterranean. Anyway, like I said, it’s not clear to me that Tooke and Tucker are mates.

    But an additional note — while you’re right that Tucker (like Fuller) is a name deriving from the sartorial vocations, Tucker sometimes represents a different name: originally Tutquor or Tutquere ( < the French name, Toutcœr = “all heart”). For discussion of this point, see Weekley’s Surnames (New York: Dutton, 1916), p. 323. In the same way, though possibly of different origins, Tooke and Tucker could easily have become confused later on, especially in the clashing of regional pronunciation (the point Shippey is making).

    You made a nice observation about the number of ‘fiber’ names associated with Sam. And remember that in Lórien, Sam is very interested in the Elven rope, hithlain. I wonder if anyone has ever looked into this imagery more closely. Sam is more often considered in the context of gardens and gardening.

  9. You may be overlooking something: Tolkien may have related 'Took' and 'Tuck' in the name 'Tuckborough' "chief village of the Tooks at [the] west-end of the Green Hill Country" (Index, RC:27; Hammond-Scull accept the relationship: "The element Tuck is a variant of the clan name Took").

    A curiosity about "fiber surnames": 'Tuckborough' was variously translated into Spanish as 'Alforzada', 'Alforzaburgo' and 'Tukburgo' ('Tuk' being the form used for 'Took' throughout). Now, 'alforza' is obscure for most Spanish speakers, and to some may suggest 'fuerza' (strength). Actually, it means 'tuck' in the sense "A fold or pleat in drapery" (apparently from Sp. Arabian '(al-)húzza' < 'hazz' "to cut").

  10. From a story-internal point of view, yes, certainly Tuckborough is related to Took. I think the vowel change you see there is meant to represent a kind of umlaut. And yes, I would agree that “the element Tuck is a variant of the clan name Took”, but that doesn’t say anything at all about the relationship (if any) between Modern English Tuck(er) and Tooke, does it? What do you think I’m overlooking? What do you think Took and Tuckborough suggest?

    I do think it would be a mistake to suppose that Tolkien’s Took is meant to evoke tuck = “a fold or pleat”, etc., simply because of the vowel in Tuckborough. Not that I’m suggesting you think this. But I definitely don’t. It is interesting to see that Spanish translators have made this assumption. According to Tolkien’s own instructions for translators — which they are, of course, free to ignore (and many have) — Took ought to have been left alone. I think Tukborgo would have met with his approval; Alforzaburgo would not. Don’t you think?

  11. Sorry, I didn't mean that the Took/Tuckborough pair had any bearing on the discussion about the real-world origin of 'Took(e)' and 'Tucker'; 'overlook' was ill-chosen. I was still thinking in terms of what triggered the whole story, i.e. the presence of 'Took' in the Shire. It would be rash to suggest that Tolkien thought of a common (real-world) origin just because of the Took/Tuckborough pair.

    As regards the translation: Tolkien did appreciate those funny misunderstandings phonetic changes bring about, especially in anthroponyms and toponyms, where the resulting form can be naturally interpreted as something wholly different from the original meaning. 'Cotton' is perhaps the best known examples of this, as shown by the fact that he toyed with the idea of making it mean both 'cot-town' and 'down, wool' in the Common Speech too (PME). Other examples of this may be 'Nobottle' or 'Pincup'. Also 'buck' in Buckland, Brandybuck etc. Anyway, the internal origin of Took/Tuckborough is unlikely to have anything to do with clothes, and so even if there is some kind of joke behind the name the translation shouldn't let that shade of possibility be predominant. But I'm sure he would have appreciated the joke.

    Side note: If Tolkien ever related the 'Tuck' in 'Tuckborough' to AS 'Tucca', it's a funny coincidence that 'Buck' comes from one 'Bucca of the Marish'.

  12. But I’m sure he would have appreciated the joke.

    I hope he would have, but he could be really cranky about his nomenclature, couldn’t he? As he wrote to Rayner Unwin in 1956:

    “I hope you […] will forgive my now at length writing to you about the Dutch translation. The matter is (to me) important; it has disturbed and annoyed me greatly, and given me a good deal of unnecessary work at a most awkward season … In principle I object as strongly as is possible to the ‘translation’ of the nomenclature at all (even by a competent person). I wonder why a translator should think himself called on or entitled to do any such thing. That this is an ‘imaginary’ world does not give him any right to remodel it according to his fancy, even if he could in a few months create a new coherent structure which it took me years to work out.” (italics original)

    Ouch, right? :)

  13. Oh, and regarding your side note (Tucca ~ Bucca), that’s an interesting point. Nice catch! Tolkien knew Weekley’s work (and could well have known the name Tucca from other sources). It does seem possible Tolkien might have landed on Bucca because of its similarity to the forms of other ancient names.

    Buck and its variations follow a number of different paths, but notable among them is the French name, Bouc or Buc, which (in spite of Tolkien’s professed dislike of French) is very close to Bucca phonologically. Intersting ...

  14. Dear Jason,
    from your latest musings, I understand that you still believe that the family name Tolkien is of Old Norse origin. Sorry, but that's not the case. You have been looking to the wrong corner of the (Old) world!
    In fact, Tolkien is a family name (and place name) from Old Prussian, an extinct Baltic language. The German name "Tollkühn" is a folk etymology of Prussian "Tolkien", and goes back to times when Prussians tried to veil their origins in order to appear German (or Polish). Many of them "germanized" their names, although most of the resulting names are slightly "odd" because they often do not adhere to the morphological rules of name-formation in German. (In Germany, there are thousands of families with such names, although the Tolkiens/Tollkühns are quite rare.) So, in contradistinction to what Tolkien wrote himself, "Tolkien" is NOT an English malapropism of German "Tollkühn", but German "Tollkühn" is a folk etmology of Prussian "Tolkien".
    And I have an inkling :) that Tolkien may have known more that he divulged:
    The silimarity to Tulkas is NO chance. The Prussian word tolk "translator" has a Lithuanian cognate tulkas (still in use today, with the same meaning). So, it appears to be just one of those philological hoaxes or auto-references that Tolkien loved so much!

    This argument does not preclude that some of the semantic relationships you claim to have discovered are not valid nevertheless. After all, Tolkien loved multiple etymologies and meanings, e.g. the name "Saruman"! But I just wanted to get the etymology of his family name straight.
    Best wishes,

  15. Welcome, Silima. Thanks for the comments!

    [F]rom your latest musings, I understand that you still believe that the family name Tolkien is of Old Norse origin.

    What did I say to give you this impression? I definitely do not think that Tolkien is a Norse name! :) Regarding the question of folk etymology for Tolkien > Tollkühn, can you point me to any sources for more information on this?

    I found your comments on Tulkas quite interesting! I may have to look into that a little more closely. Thanks for pointing that out. For the record, I don’t think I have claimed to have discovered any semantic relationships here, certainly not definitively. I’ve done no more than offer some thoughts on possible sources for Took, etc.

  16. Hey, can you explain the "four wise clerks of Oxenford" reference? I don't get it, lol.

  17. Sure, Alex. In Farmer Giles of Ham, there’s a passage where Tolkien writes:

    “So he pulled on his breeches, and went down into the kitchen and took his blunderbuss from the wall. Some may well ask what a blunderbuss was. Indeed, this very question, it is said, was put to the Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford, and after thought they replied: `A blunderbuss is a short gun with a large bore firing many balls or slugs, and capable of doing execution within a limited range without exact aim. (Now superseded in civilised countries by other firearms.)’”

    The “Four Wise Clerks of Oxenford” is Tolkien’s cheeky way (paraphrasing Chaucer) of referring to the four original editors of the Oxford English Dictionary — James Murray, Henry Bradley, William Craigie, and Charles Onions. For more details, see the notes in Christina Scull and Wayne Hammond’s 50th anniversary edition of the book. Tom Shippey has also made the same observation.

  18. Jason, perhaps you may find it interesting to take a look at something Ryszard Derdzinski posted on Elendilion a few months ago.

  19. Hi, Eva. At a glance, those look great! I’m pretty sure I recall seeing these posts announced on Facebook, and I’m sure I meant to read them. But in the event, they slipped off my radar, so thank you for the reminder!

  20. The posts at Elendilion were indeed very interesting, and the /tolk/ “interpreter” theory seems like a pretty sound possibility. Not definitive, of course (as the author admits).

    Where I have a little more difficulty is with the final step, where it is suggested that the Germanized form of the Prussian name became tollkühn under the influence of folk etymology. Why would it? The word carries a negative connotation. Even if the composite meaning were taken to be “bold” in a positive sense, the underlying meaning remains pretty clearly negative. For example, in their entry for tollkühn in the Deutsches Wörterbuch, the Grimms refer us also to dummkühn, which is even more negative (comprising “stupid” + “bold”).

    I find it hard to see why anyone would embrace such a connotation. If Prussians were trying to blend in with Germans or Poles, such a name would have made them more, not less conspicuous. I suppose another possibility is that the meaning could have been imposed on them, insultingly, by an ethnic or cultural majority, and that it eventually stuck and was subsequently forgotten. Hmm ... It bears further research, but I am excited to see where it might lead.

    By the way, when Tolkien writes of /tolk/ “an interpreter or spokesman” that “[i]t was never adopted in English”, he must mean Old English. It was definitely adopted into Modern English; it’s the source of the verb to talk. :)

  21. For what it's worth, 'tolk' has been the Dutch word for interpreter since the 16th century. Both my Dutch etymological dictionaries mention Lithuanian 'tulkas' in the lemma for 'tolk', but according to one of them, this is in its turn derived from an Old Russian word meaning translator. In modern Russian толк means sense.
    Interestingly, in modern German the word ended up as the first part of Dolmetscher (interpreter), with a voiced instead of a voiceless dental stop.


  22. Hi, Renée! Thanks for these additions. Probably all coincidence as far as Tolkien is concerned. It’s nice to think of tolk “interpreter, translator” as the first element in Tolkien, since it resonates beautifully with the translation conceit he adopted for The Lord of the Rings, but it may just be wishful thinking. Even if it turned out to be the real story behind the name, it’s certainly not what Tolkien believed, and I would be reluctant to gainsay him without very strong evidence. :)

  23. The words "after taking thought" in FGoH must refer to how long it took for the OED to be published.

    In a strictly internal viewpoint of Took vs. Tuckborough, I think that not umlaut but the FOOT-STRUT split is operating. In modern Northern and Midlands English accents, the division of Early Modern English short u into separate phonemes /ʊ/ and /ʌ/ did not occur, with the result that most words containing /ʌ/ in other accents (such as cut, mud, blood) continue to be pronounced with /ʊ/. Even in the splitting accents, however, /ʊ/ remained when preceded by a labial consonant, as in put, foot; English has the minimal contrast put/putt because putt is borrowed from Scottish varieties where the split affected even postlabial /ʊ/.

    So northern Took /tʊk/ might well phonologically correspond to Southern Tuck /tʌk/ in the Shire as in England, quite independent of whether the two names Took(e) and Tuck have the same origin or not.

    There are varieties of Northern English in which words in -ook have the GOOSE vowel rather than the FOOT vowel, and perhaps that is why in the films Pippin calls his family the /tuks/. In Scottish English there is a general merger of GOOSE and FOOT.

  24. In a strictly internal viewpoint of Took vs. Tuckborough, I think that not umlaut but the FOOT-STRUT split is operating. In modern Northern and Midlands English accents, [...]

    But that isn’t an internal viewpoint at all. You’re applying the geography of Primary World accents and the processes that differentiated them to Tolkien’s Secondary World. (I admit I was doing something similar when I said it might be “meant to represent a kind of umlaut”, but I was much more circumspect about it. :)

    So northern Took /tʊk/ might well phonologically correspond to Southern Tuck /tʌk/ in the Shire as in England [...]

    But of course, it’s not /tʊk/ in the Shire, but rather /tu:k/. It must be if it is the anglicization of Tûk, as Tolkien writes. Took rhymes with kook, not cook.

    Moreover, the Tooks were concentrated not in the north or the south, but in the west of the Shire. And don’t forget: there is Tuckborough, but there is also Tookbank and Tookland (not *Tuckbank and *Tuckland). Tookbank appears only on the Shire map and never in the text; however, Tookland does occur a few times in the text. The reason I suggested something like umlaut, as opposed to variation in regional accents, is precisely because both forms, took– and tuck–, occur side by side.

    Anyway, this is all guesswork, and we should resist the temptation of applying too systematically to Middle-earth the processes of sound change and accent differentiation we have observed in our own history. Tolkien used them as a very broad blueprint, but with many exceptions and lots of pure invention.


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