This word is spectacular in its history!  Narrowly, the edible bit of the grain, the word comes ultimately from an IndoEuropean root which means something like “whirl” – as in meal that has been ground up by a mill.  “Meal” as a more general word for food, the “meal” that I am eating at this sitting, is the contrast word to “malt”, the beverage.

And Gollum?  Yes, he says “meal” in 05.055, in the now rare meaning of any powder produced by grinding.  We have a new word for the “archaic” tag!

  • 02.027 except of course when they stopped for meals.
  • 02.033 (who shared the hobbit’s views about regular meals,
  • 05.002 for he could feel inside that it was high time for some meal or other;
  • 05.055 Grinds hard stones to meal;
  • 06.035 he had not had a meal since the night before the night before last.
  • 07.129 and after the meal they mounted the steeds he was lending them,
  • 09.022 The evening meal had been taken
  • 10.011 that he had had at least one good meal
  • 12.060 in return for the excellent meal
  • 13.052 is the safest place for a meal.
  • 13.056 and other meals,

“meal, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 12 May 2016.


I’ve always been fascinated by the first use of “fruit” in The Hobbit, as a description of hobbit laughs. It gave me the impression of chuckling and full-bellied laughter.  The OED reveals a colloquial meaning for fruity as:

colloq. Full of rich or strong quality; highly interesting, attractive, or suggestive.

and thus the 01.004 use of fruit has earned the “archaic” tag.  I now can hear hobbit laughter quite clearly – rich and strong, interesting, attractive, suggestive.  Thanks, OED!

  • 01.004 and laugh deep fruity laughs
  • 07.126 nuts, flour, sealed jars of dried fruits,
  • 08.105 and dangle like ripe fruit)
  • 19.043 and fruit and feasting in autumn.

“fruity, adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2016. Web. 10 March 2016.


Archaic Words: So What?

When we first considered the pattern of archaic words, I had decided ahead of time that these would indicate high register.  I think I’m going to have to let go of that for now.  Our green line of archaic words does indicate a general rise toward the rhetorical climax of the book.

Archaism with Words

But only 32 words out of 1534 uncommon ones – that’s 2% – qualify as archaic!  We simply don’t have robust findings, as the statistician part of my mind would say.

Let’s set aside the drive to prove something and have a look around.  We discussed earlier that archaic words signal elves in nearby scenes – a reminder that elves live much longer than hobbits.  Elves speaking the same tongue as Bilbo will have learned it centuries before he did and have a lovely old-fashioned diction in that hobbit’s opinion.  As we noted, however, it is the word “merry” which fills most of this trend.  Do thousands of years of life contribute to merriment?  Let us hope so.

When archaic words drop to nothing at all, those are goblin scenes.  Alert Word Fan Grace commented that “elf” and “goblin” may have been interchangeable words in literature before The Hobbit and that Tolkien probably tapped different parts of his vocabulary to express the huge contrast between the different peoples about whom he was writing.  Google’s Ngram viewer indicates through most of the nineteenth century that the two words were used at about the same rate, a suggestion that the words could have been used interchangeably, but before that the Norse-derived word “elf” had been strongly preferred in written English to the French-derived word “goblin”.

We also noted that the goblin scenes are bereft of food words as well – and that when food words are low, Tookishness trends upward!  It’s probably all to the good that Bilbo’s adventurous spirit rises when there are goblins about, now that I think of it.

Tolkien used a light touch with archaic words.  Compare his density of old forms with that of a writer who influenced him, William Morris who piles on real or invented strong past participles, thees and thous, kennings, and poetry in his work House of the Wolfings.  Tolkien enjoyed that story and then improved on the archaic techniques.  He never slowed us readers down by making us puzzle out his meaning.

I still have a drive to chase down archaic words, turns of phrase, and syntax; perhaps in The Lord of the Rings next.  I do admit that I spotted dozens of places in The Hobbit where I expected to see a subjunctive form and didn’t.  It’s a good thing the road goes ever on!

Morris, William. The House of the Wolfings. Project Gutenberg. Kindle Edition.

Archaic word peaks

My advisor was intrigued to see the peak in archaic words at the beginning of Chapter 9.  Here is the graph of those words superimposed on the uncommon word graph.

2015.06.15 Archaic & Uncommon Graph

Since the archaic words are a subset of the uncommon words, we know that the scale must be smaller; in this case it’s about one-twentieth the scale of the red graph (who scale is shown over on the left).  Where you see the red and green graphs equal, that means there’s one archaic word in every twenty uncommon ones.

While we have the leisure, let’s break down each of those archaic peaks.

  • Archaic words in the troll peak:  laden merrily merry canny lout glimpses merrily merry merry
  • Archaic words in the leap-in-the-dark peak: glimpse orcs glimpse bewildered glimpsed
  • Archaic words in Mirkwood: glimpses accursed merry merrily lob lob merrymaking eldest kinsfolk merrily merrymaking merry merry yonder merry merry kine mead glimpse merry
  • Archaic words in Chapters 17 through the end: bewilderment kinsmen alas, kinsfolk merrily merry merrier merry bewildered elder wrought unwrought merrier merry merry merry laden merry merry merry merry merry merry elders

Well!  We seem to have a merriment detector working for us!  And the word merry we can use broadly as an elf-detector!  Everything we have had to say about archaic words is tagged here, and the concordance entry for “Merry” is right here.

My original thought was that archaic words – tagged by the OED as “obsolete”, “archaic”, “rare”, “colloquial” – would indicate high register.  These words certainly contribute – but their numbers are too few to be a robust finding.  We will take the clue about elves and tuck it away for consideration.


How delightful that this is a separate word.  Perhaps the ravens consider it an office or a duty.  Have you ever had the sensation that a raven-messenger was addressing you, finally turning away when it is not understood?

  • 17.035 (for the raven-messengers had been busy

What about an OED entry, I hear you ask.  Yes indeed:

† raven messenger  n. Obs. = corbie messenger n. at corbie n. 2.

a1400  (▸a1325)    Cursor Mundi (Gött.) 1892   Þat messager, men say, Þat duellis lang in his iornay, He may be cald, wid resun clere, An of the rauyns messagere [a1400 Vesp. messagers corbun; a1400 Trin. Cambr. rauenenes messangere].

so we give it the Archaic tag and follow the proffered rabbit-hole…

Oh, my.

2.   corbie messenger  n. one who returns too late, or not at all: in allusion to the raven in Gen. viii. 7.

This is a completely separate meaning from the sentient, sapient creatures who carried timely messages between Thorin and Dain.  I’m giving it the JRRT tag for a brand-new use of a previously employed word.

“corbie, n.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2017, Accessed 19 September 2017.

“raven, n.1 and adj.” OED Online, Oxford University Press, June 2017, Accessed 19 September 2017.


“Outlandish” has an archaic meaning which plays a little game with us.  We usually know it as “unusual or bizarre”, and read right past it as such.  But the scene is of Bilbo telling himself not to think of dragons – and he may be telling himself not to be ridiculous… but dragons are real in Middle Earth, they are simply foreign to the Shire, the older, archaic meaning of “outlandish”.  We and Bilbo should not leave a live dragon out of our calculations.

  • 02.002 and all that outlandish nonsense at your age!”

“outlandish, adj. and n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2015. Web. 29 July 2015.


“Helm” is interchangeable with “helmet”, but listed by OED as the archaic and poetic form.

  • 06.067 and helmets,
  • 12.014 could dimly be seen coats of mail, helms and axes, swords and spears hanging;
  • 13.037 A light helm of figured leather,
  • 13.042 and their bright helms with their tattered hoods,
  • 17.066 a stone hurtling from above smote heavily on his helm,
  • 18.011 But I have a helm

“helm, n.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2015. Web. 25 July 2015.


OED says that this use of “gruesome” is literary and dialectical, so I am adding the “archaic” tag.  To “grue” is to shudder or feel such horror that you shudder – a northern, Scottish, dialectical verb.

  • 03.031 and even gruesome,

“grue, v.1.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2015. Web. 25 July 2015.

“gruesome, adj.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, June 2015. Web. 25 July 2015.


The meaning “spider” has been attested since the 1600s, but the OED conjectures that it is a back formation from “Cobweb”, with roots meaning “grab” ultimately the same as the slang word “cop” for “police officer”.

  • 08.100 Lazy Lob and crazy Cob

“† cob, n.4.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, September 2015. Web. 4 October 2015.