The Very Middlemost Word

Were you enchanted by the word and number play of The Faerie Queen, too, Word Fans?  I’m pleased to report that by word count, and including Chapter titles, the very middlemost word of The Hobbit is “creeping”.

[08.058]  After a good deal of creeping and crawling they peered round the trunks and looked into a clearing where some trees had been felled and the ground levelled. There were many people there, elvish-looking folk, all dressed in green and brown and sitting on sawn rings of the felled trees in a great circle. There was a fire in their midst and there were torches fastened to some of the trees round about; but most splendid sight of all: they were eating and drinking and laughing merrily.

Pivotal  moment?  Yes, indeed!

Sound Play

I am preparing to graph the frequencies of those words which show sound play – which we have tagged “onomatopoeia” in the word entries.  I cannot but help to include all of Gollum’s extra-sibilant utterances as well as his call-name.  Given that I’m counting the name “Gollum” in this analysis, I must use the best sound-names of the whole novel, Roäc and Carc. Their names suggest the entire Raven language and a suspicion that we readers have heard ravens talking among themselves, not making simple sounds, an idea we have encountered before.

Including those names and Gollumisms, there are 488 sound-play words in our spreadsheet of 7172 uncommon words.

Food v Sound

There are forty three separate food words, about half as many as there are sound words.  They are repeated for a total of 125 food words, about one-third as many as there are sound words.  I have heard frequently about the food imagery – how it expressed the Baggins side of our reluctant hero – but not much if ever about the sound words.  Hmmm.  Is this a function of many food words being in the Ten Thousand?  Is it also a function of the sound words acting more subtly on us?


I learned many years ago from Professor Catriona Parsons that Gàidhlig waulking songs, the work songs which keep the rhythm for hand-fulling woolen cloth, are full of “vocables”.

“These are not like fa-la-la,” she said. “They are very ancient sounds and they have meaning, but we have lost the meaning.”

She then taught us very carefully to pronounce these syllables, which usually alternate in the songs with phrases in current lexical use, just as she had heard them growing up on the Isle of Lewis.  I fancied that it did not matter if we knew the meaning, as long as those to whom we sang could understand.

Similarly, what’s up with tra-la-la-lally?  Whether full of lexical meaning or not, these vocables are sound play, only spoken by elves and goblins.  Do these sounds make those singers a bit alien?  Do they remind us that they speak other languages natively?  I believe they do.  In honor of the play of sound-on-sound in these vocables, I am giving them the ‘Onomatopoeia” tag.

  • 03.014 O! tra-la-la-lally
  • 03.015 O! tril-lil-lil-lolly
  • 06.077 Ya hey!
  • 06.078 Ya hey!
  • 06.078 Ya harri-hey!
  • 06.078 Ya hoy!
  • 06.079 and with that Ya hoy!
  • 09.049 roll-roll-rolling down the hole!
  • 19.002 Come! Tra-la-la-lally!
  • 19.003 O! Tra-la-la-lally
  • 19.004 Fa-la!
  • 19.004 Fa-la-la-lally
  • 19.004 With Tra-la-la-lally
  • 19.004 Tra-la-la-lally


I hope you have enjoyed our survey of sound play in the uncommon words!  I am charmed to learn that eighty four of the words – more than 8% of our uncommon words! – were sound-play words such as “Hum, whistle, sh”.  Many of those words are repeated, of course: they comprise 316, about one-third of 1% of the total words of the book!

The formation of a word from a sound associated with the thing or action being named; the formation of words imitative of sounds.

The use of echoic or suggestive language

I began with the idea that sound-play words would be light and funny, and that I would be able to tag and track them to identify light-hearted passages.  Then a leaf rustled and the dragon hummed.  This poetic technique quite simply adds sensation to each scene, intensifying the mood.  Sometimes Tolkien even uses the onomatopoeic words to create tone – brightening the scariest parts of his children’s bedtime tale.

Alert Word Fans will see that I captured a few more sound-play words after this post – they are included in this post’s total.

“onomatopoeia, n.” OED Online. Oxford University Press, March 2015. Web. 29 May 2015.