The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary

by Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall and Edmund Weiner (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006): 246pp, £12.99, ISBN 978 0 19 861069 4.

Reviewed by Laura Hicks

Buy this book

'When I use a word it means just what I choose it to mean …' The immortal words of Humpty Dumpty could, somewhat surprisingly, have been said by J R R Tolkien, although he would never have added: '– neither more nor less.'

In his case, it was the creative imagination of a philologist that produced 'new' meanings for old words – so goes the argument of the second part of this new study of Tolkien's writings by three senior editors of the OED, who have attempted to relate the author's work to his early years working on the Dictionary, and the methods of philological research he learnt there.


The first part of the book – 'Tolkien as lexicographer' – describes the way in which the OED was compiled in the early 1920s. Watchers of the BBC-TV series Balderdash and Piffle will realise that the basics have not changed, although the technology has.

There are good illustrations of the dictionary slips which Tolkien compiled as his researches into the etymologies of the words with which he was entrusted progressed. It appears that, from the beginning, his work tended to be even more discursive than that of his colleagues.

Private languages

Part II – 'Tolkien as wordwright' – shows how Tolkien 'took the opportunity to practise the same philological techniques by applying them to his own private languages', particularly in The Lord of the Rings and subsequent works, and discusses his double meanings, puns and other forms of word-play, and use of particular words.

This leads into the third, main part of the book, 'Word studies', a detailed examination of more than one hundred of what the authors consider to be the most interesting words Tolkien used. A short epilogue looks at the influence his work has had on the English language – and not just on writers of fantasy and science fiction. This is followed by a fairly comprehensive bibliography and a slightly disappointing index.


Parts I and II, while interesting, are very heavily weighted towards those with a passionate interest in lexicography and philology, but Part III will fascinate any devotee of Tolkien's Middle Earth writings. And by the end of the book, the reader will fully appreciate the appropriateness of the book's punning title, The Ring of Words.

Reviews of other literary criticism and books on language All book reviews