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The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary.

The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary

Peter Gilver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner

Oxford University Press

0198610696 $25.00

The Ring of Words is one of the most captivating works I, Phil Kaveny, have come upon in the last decade dealing with J.R.R Tolkien or any aspect of his work. I was quite surprised at the way this handsome; somewhat petite in physical appearance, and well illustrated book grabbed my attention. It is a book that asks to be read. But this only refers to the physical appearance of The Ring of Words. In terms of its intellectual content it is petite like a pocket battleship, no space is wasted and everything means business and can hold its own against any contenders.

I spent the late morning and all of the Winter Solstice afternoon reading The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary from cover to cover in a single sitting. I was glued to it; could not put it down. Occasionally I would look out the window of the sixth-floor reading of room of our Philosophy & Religious Studies Department and watch the shadows of the barren trees extend along the banks the lazily meandering Chippewa River. The river no longer gives any semblance of freezing, I suppose as a result of global warming. I was able to enjoy The Ring of Words unmolested because it is break time now between semesters and there were no students present here at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, no loud grossly personalized cell phones ringing, no iPods, no laptops, no Internet, and no television. I even read the book through the natural light that came through the tall narrow window that looks a little like an archer's slit. That is to say just like the ones we saw at Conway Castle when my wife and I visited Wales a handful of years ago. But maybe that's pushing things just a little bit too far. However I confess that is the kind of whimsical fantastic mood the book puts me into; it takes me away from the present, and makes me think of a world less ephemeral than the mundane and primary one in which we plod out and away our everyday existence.

Later that evening after I returned home, while the events of the morning and afternoon were still fresh in my mind, and their spell was not completely worn away, I found myself in need of a word to capture the afternoon. Not just any word, but just the right word to share this experience. I turned to the 1989 second edition of The Oxford English Dictionary Online (which we are quite lucky to have remote access to from our home through the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, McIntyre Library) and came up with adjective 'delightful': Affording delight; delighting; highly pleasing, charming. Further its etymology is as follows.

"1530 PALSGR. 309/2 Delytefull, that moche delyteth, deliteux. 1553 T. WILSON Rhet. (1580) 3 marg., Oratours muste use delitefull wordes and saiges. 1590 SPENSER F.Q. I. iv. 4 Goodly galleries..Full of faire windowes and delightful bowres. 1659 D. PELL Impr. Sea To Rdr. Avij, What delightfuller thing canst thou read than a Theam or Subject of the Sea. 1667 MILTON P.L. I. 467 Rimmon, whose delightful Seat Was fair Damascus. 1779 COWPER Lett. 31 Oct., Was there ever anything so delightful as the music of the Paradise Lost? 1848 DICKENS Dombey xxxv, That delightfullest of cities, Paris. 1870 LOWELL Study Wind. (1871) 1 One of the most delightful books in my father's library."

So how is it that authors: Peter Gilliver, Edmund Weiner, Jeremy Marshall, all currently senior editors at The Oxford English Dictionary, were able to produce such a delightful book? It's in three sections, Tolkien as Lexicographer, Tolkien as Word Wright, and Word Studies, are followed by an epilogue which assesses Tolkien's influences on the English Language. I think the answer lies in the way book starts in a time other than the present and lacking all of the annoying accouterments of modernity which I was free from when I enjoyed the book on that magic afternoon, which now seems as long ago as it was when eighty years ago an-out-of-work twenty-six year old English world War One veteran J.R.R Tolkien, in need of a job to support his family, was hired to work on The Oxford English Dictionary. By 1918, the OED was and ongoing project stretching across the previous sixty years since its beginnings. In 1857 The Philological Society of London formed a committee to embark on the project to compile a dictionary of all English words.

What gives The Ring of Words part of its particular flavor are the 15 half-tone Illustrations which convey a sense depth of time and place and take us into the world where Tolkien worked as a subaltern for approximately two years. Figure 1 takes us to the dictionary room interior of the Old Ashmolean building in Oxford which opened in 1683 about the time that Eau Claire, Wisconsin was founded as trading post in what was then Louis Fourteenth's New France, (incidentally my wife, and I have visited the Ashmolean building a score of times on our travels in the last decade). Figure 2 shows a four-by-six slip in Tolkien's own handwriting showing his work on the entry 'warm' and reminds of us of a time when intellectual work was done by hand rather than though multiple electronic augmentations. Figures 4a and 4b show how Tolkien's entry (in his own hand) on 'wain' progressed from dictionary slip to its etymology printed dictionary entry in the first edition (1926) of The OED, which, incidentally, to my eye seemed to be a perfect match for the Online OED version. Just to see the examples of work in Tolkien's own hand, which I suppose has become mundane for generations of Tolkien scholars, is a real treat to those of us who do not have easy access to primary sources of his material.

But of course The Ring of Words is not really about the two years that Tolkien spent working for the OED, even if the first section concentrates on his contributions to the letter 'w'. Rather it is about the effect that experience had on the development of his life's body of work. It is also about the way he used the OED as a resource to enrich his work not simply by lifting the words out of context but rather fitting them to his needs through a kind of natural process of linguistic development. As show by the list of one hundred or so words he worked on mostly starting with the letter W (15 out of 100 entries, some of them on multiple, related words, in this book's lexicon start with 'w', but 'w' was Tolkien's 'letter' when he worked on the dictionary).

I, Janice Bogstad, was asked by Phil to focus on the Word Studies but want to place them in context. While the first section and illustrations chronicle Tolkien's OED work, the second p. 45-86 are the three editors' endeavor to help us understand how Tolkien worked to transform his lexicographic and philological knowledge into the momentous work that became Middle Earth, from the humble beginnings of The Hobbit, through the to-become-famous Lord of the Rings and even the twelve books of the History of Middle Earth published after his death. In a very real sense, these two sections are literary criticism, and in fact the authors discuss the senses in which literary criticism has grown out of philology. In another, they are preparation for the third section, Word Studies, where these experienced scholars treat Tolkien's specialized evolution of words

Because I review so many works of criticism, theory and reference for such a range of publications, from Publisher's Weekly to Medieval Feminist Forum and Collection Building, I find myself asking of each book a number of similar questions, even though I don't always include the answers in the actual review. This is how I tell what kind of book I'm looking at and how well it does what it sets out to do. All of these questions are very relevant to The Ring of Words, written by three lexicographers from the modern OED project, one which brings the OED into the oh-so-malleable present, and even into the potential futures through their 'science fiction and fantasy supplement' in progress, both of which changes in the nature of the OED are made possible by its electronic form, but more on that later.

Who is the intended audience for this book; Not only who will read it but who will understand it and WANT to read it? How will this book be used: Not just what can it be used for but how can it be enjoyed? Does it tell me anything I didn't know or more importantly, that a general reader would not know? Sometimes those answers are the same and others very different. How accurate, factual and accessible is it?

The Ring of Words is two books, really. Two chapters are on the order of a critical biography, and the last, a reference book. If we ask who is intended to read it, the two parts will yield different answers because the methodologies that inform them are different. But yet, methodology is a large part of what this book is all about. It attempts to show us what Tolkien may have thought about the words he used to create his world of Middle Earth, but in the course of this process, also how he thought, as lexicographer and inventor of words, or wordwright, as the second chapter is entitled, and also as scholar, literary author, mythographer, and philosopher of the spirit. All three sections of the work are accessible to a general reader, but they will, of course, be read very differently by all of these readers and with different levels of interest. For me, the primary reaction is to want a longer list of words from Tolkien's Middle Earth, which one hopes, will be forthcoming (perhaps based on the success of this book).

And then some readers will use this book in very different ways. For example, for me it confirms a suspicion I've had since the second edition of the OED, which came out just a little to late to resolve a difference of opinion with my dissertation advisor, the noted classicist and medieval literary scholar, Dr. F. LeMoine, over whether I could use Foucault's term 'episteme' in my dissertation on women and science fiction. She asked me to remove it as there 'was no such word'. I did so, of course, as it wasn't in the first edition of the OED, but it WAS in the second edition and I dined out on that story, respectfully told, for some years. And from that point, I begin to suspect what may be to some a subtle (but is to me profound) change in the definition of a definitive dictionary of the English Language. The OED is in the process of a total change in focus. Both the mechanics and the conceptual framework of the OED are expanding. New words are added and accepted more readily and we certainly teach the nature of 'authoritative' renderings differently. For example, the authors of this book document a more expansive idea of what will and can be included, partially, I could argue, because the electronic medium itself so greatly facilities such kinds of malleability but yet it is just the sort of minds that know the basic need for an OED who also have the potential of stemming the tide of highly-accessible misinformation that has become the Internet. For by creating such a thing as a 'science fiction and fantasy supplement' they both turn their methodological talents to documenting a different kind of usage, a contemporary sub-creating. They show an understanding that many will want to use a 'shared vocabulary supplement', which could be one of many. And of course Tolkien's influence both on the dictionary itself and on the English language, just as the authors argue, is manifest in the fact that this first supplement is one on science fiction and fantasy, the latter of which he somewhat rescued from obscurity and relegation to a children's genre and the former of which, as evidenced by such works as the 'closed series' television program Babylon Five, derives from the very fantasy, mythology, and history out of which The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings sprung.

Comments on Word section: Readers of this review deserve a glimpse of the wonderfully creative entries on Tolkien's specialized creation of words and languages that then give rise to Middle Earth. The first question is 'how were words chosen' and it is not directly addressed by the three authors. There are 100 entries so I assume they started by setting that limit. There are the usual candidates: Hobbit, which is the longest entry, and of course elf, dwarf, man, dwarf, and orc. Some postdate Tolkien's book--Tolkien and Tolkienesque, for example, which have been used to describe his work and that of other modern fantasists, and which convey a pretty precise meaning for those who've read and enjoyed even The Hobbit. One feature that becomes quickly clear is that the definitions are not uniform. They don't address the same sorts of things for each word represented. For example, while many entries attempt to find a actual historical source for Tolkien's terms, some focus on OE, ME or Old Norse history of the words, some focus more on Tolkien's 'rules of transformation' and creation of different languages, and still others take a more sociological approach. They vary in length from a third-of-a-page for 'dumbledore' to nine pages for 'hobbit', but average about 1.5 pages per word. And most are firmly grounded in the idea that the authors are providing us with Tolkien's use in such a way that it will be understood by a contemporary reader with a general knowledge of the literary work in question. In some cases, they tell delightful stories in an of themselves, making reference to actual words, the cultures and dialects from which they came, and the conditions under which Tolkien evolved them, including quotations from his own letters and public lectures. Take for example 'hobbit'. We get the OED definition which includes the explanation that up to the point of his death Tolkien was not willing to stay that he invented the word. Then we read about subsequent discoveries of the term in a list of names of folkloric creatures found in the second and third editions of a small-print-run publication called The Denham Tracts (you will need to read the book to find out what and where they are found), and then how translators have dealt with it in languages from Swedish to Czech, and finally how the word has come to be used in our language. Another favorite of mine is 'ent and etten', partially because these are among my favorite creatures in the saga. They began with an Anglo-Saxon word and are used as "one of the key examples of Tolkien's linguistic imagination," (p. 119). And the meaning and sense of ent comes from the idea of giants in our far past, just as hobbit does from 'little people'. But there is also the Old English terms 'eoten' and 'ent', and "an eoten is a being hostile to humans (p. 119). Of course there is a lot more to chart how Tolkien went from a complex of related words in different languages to create the enigmatic and laconic ents. There there's 'weregild' from ancient Teutonic and Old English law that Tolkien attaches to Isildur's failure to destroy the one ring. And each term addressed brings together both sources and evolutionary transformations that led Tolkien to create languages and then out of them the land that would make them possible. While it could be a challenge to read the individual words and their entries, I did not find it so, and neither would anyone with even a mild interest in Tolkien.

As you can see, there many useful things one can say about this book and it will be used by many, and different, reasons by scholars, Tolkien-focused and other kinds, general readers, Tolkien completists and even users of the OED and its online edition and supplements. Therefore it seems to us that the book is not only a must for academic, but also college, school and public libraries. As a matter of fact the same thing can be said about the OED Online. I think this is particularly true in this modern age in which my colleagues inform me that even on the graduate level it's necessary to assign texts with progressively more rudimentary registers of meaning which they are then demanded to teach with a kind of didactic and false-analytic confidence. The kind of confidence which would assume that words are now as the always were and mean what they always meant. A kind of false confidence which would deny the possibility of what Norman Cantor labeled Diachronic Philology in his Chapter "The Oxford Fantasists" in his 1991 Inventing The Middle Ages in describing Tolkien's lifetime project. The Ring of Words in its entirety is a testament to a great man who did not accept any reduction of expectation that his readers would accept a more complicated text, and that they would enthusiastically embrace that complication, whether on the general level or progressively more subtle ones, depending on their interest, background and abilities. He wrote for and speaks to many readers and this critical work takes off from his insights on how language comes to mean for a wide range of people who may not have thought about it before.

By Philip E. Kaveny Dr. Janice M. Bogstad

Part 4 Dionysian Hedonism and the counter Culture and still more about the sexual revolution in at U.W Madison in he Late 1960's

I wish the Flipside could include two color photos of one taken in 1968 and the taken in 1972, because I think that they would really help part four of this article make sense. But for now, unless we get a really big grant which we so richly deserve to make this rag all color, I will just have to rely on my words to make the picture your minds.

The first photo is of this hopeless pathetic pasty skinned fat guy he weighs close to four hundred pounds. He has short hair and a mustache and he is has a beer next to him and he is sitting in his mothers back yard. That's me I am twenty four years old, and it was taken in 1968. When the picture was taken I had been drinking very heavily for the last five six years, and I have been reduced to earning my living as a remittance man. That is to say I got small amounts of money from my family members to stay out of sight, and in return they got to have the fun of humiliating whenever it took their fancy. Not the kind of job that looks very good on ones resumes, but it was the best job I could get at the time. You might remember I mentioned that I had one hundred and three or four job interviews and no takers until I got my bartender's job in May of 1969.

This situation was pretty bad but was yet to reach to bottom out. But it did, when my mother's sister Cleo Sammis (1914-2002) fired me from my dog sitter's job. One of my sources of income at that time was taking care of her sixty pound female Dachshund Machen when she and her husband would take a road trip to The House on The Rock and then whoop it up by having dinner at a supper in Dodgeville club afterward. I was fired for growing that same mustache, which I then shaved to get back on the dole with her as a clean-shaven dog sitter.

Perhaps there was a good reason that some of my class mates from my Madison East High School class of 1962 , who would now be known as (mean girls), to have nominated me as "class member most likely to commit suicide at my fifth high school class reunion in 1967. My wresting coach was heard to have said, something like this, never have I seen man degenerate more in such a short time his life. Well I guess I disappointed a lot of people because I did not drink myself to death. I think that was because inside the image of that pathetic fat guy in that photo was a champion and a kind of shadow warrior for the noble causes, even if that my shadow warrior was trapped inside a great big jelly doughnut, at the time that photograph was taken.

Well I am alive now and my life is much better I have not had a single drink since I quite forever on Feb 2nd 1971, so on all counts I have been clean and sober for nearly thirty six year. Well what happed? How did I survive? I have some sisters of mercy to tell you about who helped me remember who I was. The first was Cleopha Dunn 1885-1969 who was critical in my developing self-determination, when most of the rest of the family was wondering what institution I was going to end up.

Strangely a lot of myself determination seems to be expressed in the length hair, and the presence of facial hair. Later in this article I promise I will tell you about my half million-dollar beard, which I still wear. What I mean by that is the beard that I have worn since 1971 cost me half a million dollars and was worth every cent of.

Sisters of mercy

My first sister of mercy was a blood relative and my sainted grand mother. I was always my Grandmother's, who was a full-blooded German's, favorite. She married my full blooded Irish Grandfather in 1906 as a trophy husband, and as a result stoically, lived through the poverty, and living hell of Irish family alcoholism. Its worse around Christmas and it really does take all the fun out of family dysfunction. The details of it play out, if you are forced to live through them, in a way that would make the John Houston movie production of the James Joyce novella The Dead seem like a musical comedy. Maybe Grandma Dunn knew what I was up against and loved me unconditionally, whether I looked like Apollo or a great big jelly doughnut.

By the time I visited my Grandma on her death bed in Sept, 1969 I had gotten a job, got laid a few times and grew back a great big handle bar mustache. At that time I was informed by my aunt Cleo that not only would to be forever black balled as a dog sitter, but that I was persona non-grata in her home in one of Madison's fashionable west side suburb. Strangely enough thirty years later the only thing stood between me inheriting that fashionable west side home, and her entire half million dollar estate according to her will was my thirty year refusal to shave off, my half million dollar beard.

On her death bed my grandmother informed me that my mother, rich Uncle Pete, and my Aunt Cleo wanted her to beg me to shave off my great big handle bar mustache for her impending funeral since she was near death from leukemia. She said, however, that she actually loved no matter what I looked liked and that she though that great big handle bar mustache was an improvement, and made me look like Grover Cleveland one of the hottest presidents in American History. I remember that my uncle Pete who made it big in international finance and leg breaking, made me charge a four hundred dollar size sixty suit to his account, this was when four hundred dollars meant something so I could look presentable as one of Grandma's pall bears. I guess I should not have washed and dried that same four hundred suit it in the Jiffy Speed Laundromat afterwards because it shrunk down to a size forty two and ended up in a rag rug my mother made.

Another sister of mercy was Maureen Frazier- Mckiernan who was perhaps the most beautiful and powerfully ethical women I have ever met. Though she was mostly Irish with green eyes and blood hair and looked like one of Woden's daughters, and just by the way was a member of Mensa. Maureen was a member of University of Wisconsin's most exclusive sorority and it was from her that I learned that women to had sexual appetites, or to put another way sexual pleasure two way street Maureen Married my best friend of a lifetime in 1972 and I was their best man. I never had sexual intercourse with her, what I had was much better, Maureen reminded me that I was human with a kiss.

It happened this way: it was New Years Eve of 1968-1969, in the process of accompanying me buddy Bob Mckiernan on his round as a security guard at one of last Madison's major industrial employers. In the process I nearly cut my hand off in the middle of my forearm when I was roaring drunk, and playing with huge industrial saw. I managed to pull my hand away only just in time otherwise for the last thirty seven years we I would had a nick name like Captain Hook, or something. Since the factory was deserted for New Years Eve the only time of the year it was closed, Bob let me sleep it off for a couple hours in the factory nurses office, and then suggested we crash a party.

Actually it was more like a Visigoth raid than a party crash, Maureen had been dating some guys who were naval academy cadets, and Bob and I sort of livened up the party, and in the process drove them off. I remember at new years I grabbed Maureen and gave her a rather rude and drunk kiss, and she returned it with even greater gusto, and held me so tight with my arms pinned to my sides that I could not get away. Her sub text was really very simple I can stand up to you; you are human, worthy no stop being an asshole. In a way she gave me back my humanity and I never kissed a woman that way again. However there was a time when I averted what might have been a fatal confrontation with a motor cycle gain who out number us by about ten to one by kissing there gang leader the same way, and then just walking away . That was always my father's side of the family's motto always run away. Maureen died of M.S in 1991 after ten year heroic struggle. In 1993, as a solemn tribute to her great soul, and with her husband at my side I scattered her ashes on Lake Monona in the spring of 1993. I think she is of the reasons I am now in religious studies

A Miracle in my life

Here is where I pay tribute to another sister of mercy who I thought I loved and nearly married before I new what love was. Cathy survived but she was a nearly a causality of the old system. The one in place before the revolution, and may well be in place again. She came from private school and went to another private university fell in love with a guy who used her, lost her self respect, had twins and a miss--carriages, and I met her in the Madison's bar scene and some how we expected to be miracles in each others lives, but that's not what happened.

"Cathy 1969"

Cathy exploded in my arms like a startled flock of birds in a cemetery. She filled my life with love's first murderous madness and flew away with the morning, leaving the taste of ashes in my mouth.

I would love to have sex, but we don't have enough people.

I suppose I should at least say something about the orgies since we are talking about Dionysian Hedonism. Maybe Woody Allen Said it best when he is cast into the future in his very funny 1973 film Sleeper in which Woody Wakes up two centuries later and asks to have sex with Dianne Keaton and she says. She would love to have sex, but we don't have enough people. Another funny line I once heard in person was. "I would love to have sex but I would have to miss my psychiatrist appointment" I guess what it breaks down to is if it's not funny it's not worth talking about. The other problem is that its difficult to talk about what happened 1969 then not knowing what is happening not knowing what is happen know in 2006

The Second Photo was taken in the summer of 1971 shortly after I got my first full time civil service job with benefits, a job which I held until 2000. I have been sober for six months, my shoulder length hair is blowing in the wind, and my beard is very large and red, I am wearing black mirror shade wraparound sunglasses, my skin is no longer pasty, and I have a suntan and I weigh a hundred pounds less than the guy in the first picture. I have canceled all remittances from my family and they are sure I am hell bent because the shadow warrior inside of me is fighting his demons and out trying to do some good in the world. I have yet to find out what love really is but that will happen in a handful of months later when I meet the woman I am now married to who anybody who knows me will know.

So what happened how come lady death scratched her name of my dance card the tomb stones fell away from my eyes, and lady grace gave me a ride home? Well okay here is what I think happened it all started with the arts for me. Their were powerful artist forces which the chaos of the late sixties released and cultural space was made for an artistic counter culture that people were willing to bust there asses for. Make no mistake about it that traditions still drive The Flipside and are making it look a lot better. Not everything in the world is about making money. In the last thirty five years I have been a serious film maker, community radio, and television producer and playwright and given more guest lectures, than I can count. My most recent lecture was for a religious studies course on battlefield technology in the Hebrew Bible. I have probably written a million words for publication, and the word from my oldest friends is that my work is getting better, thanks, I might add, to the University of Wisconsin Eau Claire office for Services for Students with Disabilities and the staff members who insisted that I get a full evaluation of my strengths and weakness, and directed me towards services which make those things that are hard for me possible, to feel this way at my age is a real hoot.
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Author:Kaveny, Philip
Publication:MBR Bookwatch
Date:Feb 1, 2007
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