My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!
The word hobbit sprang without warning into Tolkien’s mind while he was grading exams. He simply found himself writing on the back of an exam page, “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”. He didn’t know what a hobbit was, or what kind of hole it lived in… But he found the answers as he was weaving bedtime stories for his children — the stories that would, of course, be written down as The Hobbit.
Why did it come into Tolkien’s head? One possible source is the word rabbit. Tolkien vehemently denied that hobbits had anything to do with rabbits, although Bilbo Baggins is called a “rabbit” multiple times in the book. Many years after The Hobbit was written, Tolkien developed a fictional etymology for it: hobbit was a worn-down form of Old English hol-bytla, “hole-builder”. Perhaps Tolkien, a scholar of Old English, subconsciously had this in mind from the beginning. Another possible source is a mention of hobbits in long list of earth-spirits compiled by a 19th-century writer, a list which Tolkien may possibly have read and then forgotten about. In any case, other possibilities are (1) a word hobbe in Middle English which meant something like “small sprite” or “changeling”, and which Tolkien was probably aware of on some level, and (2) Hob, a nickname for Robin Goodfellow, a forest spirit.
It seems almost as if the syllable hob has always been there, floating around in the collective unconscious of English speakers, and has emerged at various times and places under the pen of various authors who happened to “hear” it.
Phonosemantically, hobbits are destined for the earth-shaking role they play in the story of Middle-Earth. The “h” at the beginning is the home, the hearth, love of which is in the heart of every hobbit. The short “o” signifies their character, which is not only steadfast but deeply connected to the Source, as is shown by their resistance to external influence and magic of all sorts. But the primary syllable ends with the “b” of breakouts, sudden emergence, and surprise — and a recurring theme in Tolkien’s work is how surprising hobbits are to other races in Middle Earth, despite (or perhaps because of) their simple earthiness. The final “it” is a light, tense movement along a path; so overall the name suggests energy that has its roots deep in home and hearth, but has burst out and set to wandering.
From Latin honorem, “honor, dignity, reputation”. No one knows where honorem comes from. The adjectival form was honestus, which became honeste in Old French, and honest in English around 1300.
Honest is one of the few words in the standard North American English dialect group that is spelled with an initial silent “h” (others are honor, herb and heir). Dropping initial “h” is common in most modern dialects of English, but there are a few dialects — like American English — that hold on to it for most words. (However, standard American English does pronounce the final “r” in honor, while most other English dialects do not — leaving honor to be pronounced “ON-ah”.)
Energetically, honest begins with Source energy that is directed, narrowed toward a target of communication, with an aspect of directed, purposeful energy. This seems like a marvelous fit: the Source energy is the Truth, which, in the honest person, is the goal of communication.
From Proto Indo European ego, which is also the ancestor of Latin ego. The Latin ego simply meant “I”, but was picked up by psychoanalysts in the early 20th century to mean one part of the Self. Ego in Proto Indo European became ekan in Proto Germanic, and then ic in Old English (compare ich in German). Then, around 1100, dialects in the north of England began to shorten ic to i, for unknown reasons. This dialect change slowly spread southward. Ich and ek could still be found occasionally in the north, especially before vowels (e.g. I like apples vs. Ich/ek ate an apple), as late as 1400, and in the south as late as the 1700’s. I has been capitalized since about 1250 in order to distinguish it clearly in handwritten manuscripts.
The standard phonosemantic meaning of the long “i” is an expansive, roomy energy, particularly oriented toward mind and art. It may be that this reflects the usual British/American attitude that the self is something oriented toward reason and creativity. Emotions, after all, are things that the “I” has to deal with, control, or experience; they’re not really thought of as part of the “I” itself. Contrast that with the Old English conception of “I” — ic – a light, tense energy that is contained (presumably contained in your body), or the Latin conception of “I” — ego – which is a hard-working, grounded energy. Also, in our own time, there are the varying pronunciations found in dialects, such as the “I” of the Southeastern United States — pronounced more like ah – a balanced, flat energy. These pronunciations may reflect a great deal about self-image in these societies.