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Are some of Tolkien's word choices ... ill advised?


Oct 5 2021, 11:49pm

Views: 2054
Are some of Tolkien's word choices ... ill advised?

For some reason this line of Sam's, from the 'Herbs and Stewed Rabbit' chapter of LotR, has been nagging at me:
‘Po-ta-toes,’ said Sam. ‘The Gaffer’s delight, and rare good ballast for an empty belly.' - LR IV.4
What got me thinking is that 'ballast' is distinctly a nautical term. It's the weights that are put in the bottom of an empty ship's hull to ensure it floats and sails upright.

And I thought, wait. Isn't this a word that would be rather typically part of a common Englishman's vocabulary, as one of a famously seafaring and boating people? And on the other hand, aren't the hobbits of the Shire, though based in so many ways on the country English folk of the Midlands, equally famous as being both historically land-locked, and averse to boating in any form?

Why, in other words, would 'ballast' appear in a quaint folk-phrase of Sam's? It's out of place.

I don't see, by the way, how the old gag of "it's a translation, and the hobbits didn't use that word in the original" as an approach to textual problems in LotR applies here. Ballast as an English translation would necessarily derive from a similar word in Westron, or it's a pretty poor translation, damning Tolkien from only a slightly different angle.

More to the point, I think, is that Tolkien often nodded as he cheerfully concocted what he called 'hobbit speech'. Some of his choices of vocabulary are too clearly English rather than hobbitish. (Another example that has always bugged me is "All aboard, Sam?" when Frodo hauls Sam out of the beer cellar as they prepare to leave Bag End!)

Or am I over-reacting? Most of Tolkien's craft in writing hobbit dialogue, like his other peoples' forms of speech, is excellent. The choices convey character and setting at least as much as the scenic descriptions do. Should I forgive 'ballast' - or is there an explanation I've missed for its presence in the story?

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Oct 6 2021, 4:22am

Views: 2003
There is a tendency -

because he cared so much about word choice, and brought great learning and understanding to the choices he made, it seems worthwhile to examine words that appear to be out of place.

It would be a rare good writer who always used precisely the words he meant to, which never need succumb to sober second thought in second (etc.) editions.

I’ll try to spend some time this week spotting words that fit your criteria. For now, regarding “ballast,” I would not be surprised if this is another instance where our Professor is one step ahead of us. Consider the last bit of the listing for “ballast (n.)” from The Online Etymology Dictionary:

"heavy material used to steady a ship," 1520s, from Middle English bar "bare" (see bare (adj.); in this case "mere") + last "a load, burden," from Proto-Germanic *hlasta-, from PIE root *klā- "to spread out flat" (see lade). Or borrowed from identical terms in North Sea Germanic and Scandinavian (compare Old Danish barlast, 14c.). "Mere" because not carried for commercial purposes. Dutch balg-last "ballast," literally "belly-load," is a folk-etymology corruption. -emphasis added.

While hobbits may know very little of boats and nautical terms, they knew a thing or two about belly-loads. Laugh

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Oct 6 2021, 7:12pm

Views: 1966
Nice pick-up.

However, one group of Hobbits did do boating - the Stoors, from memory? - and I figure that their colloquialisms seeped into other areas of the Shire. Even though most Hobbits wouldn't go near water deeper than a wash-basin, they'd understand shorthand phrases like this simply because they'd heard them before within the Shire.

(Although I think Stoors used boats rather than ships, and I'm not sure if ballast would have been necessary in the smaller vessels, so I'm just spit-balling.)

Celebrimbor: "Pretty rings..."
Dwarves: "Pretty rings..."
Men: "Pretty rings..."
Sauron: "Mine's better."

"Ah, how ironic, the addictive qualities of Sauron’s master weapon led to its own destruction. Which just goes to show, kids - if you want two small and noble souls to succeed on a mission of dire importance... send an evil-minded beggar with them too." - Gandalf's Diaries, final par, by Ufthak.

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Oct 6 2021, 8:40pm

Views: 1963
"Hardly a word in its 600,000 or more has been unconsidered"

I'm sure you are familiar with this statement about the writing (and rewriting) of The Lord of the Rings made by Tolkien in his famous letter to Milton Waldman. I'm inclined to believe that it is, to a very great extent, true, and that the use of the word "ballast" in this context makes more sense than is apparent to us. Looking at the chapter in The War of the Ring discussing the writing of this section doesn't reveal much, though it appears that after doing some initially outlining "he wrote the story almost as it stands in TT." Whether that means that the word "ballast" was present from the beginning I don't know, but I suspect that it does, and that the word made sense to Tolkien then, and never stopped making sense to him over the course of further rewritings.

That is good enough for me!

'But very bright were the stars upon the margin of the world, when at times the clouds about the West were drawn aside.'

The Hall of Fire


Oct 6 2021, 10:46pm

Views: 1965
Of course, of course...

I was simply teasing apart the difference between "Hardly a word..." and "Not a single word..." out of 600,000 having been unconsidered by our intrepid Prof.

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Oct 19 2021, 3:54am

Views: 1780
A stretch perhaps -

In describing his terrible magnificence, Smaug says his wings are “a hurricane.”

Are hurricanes listed among the weather events of Middle-earth? Would anyone who did not live near the sea know what a hurricane is? May they not rather have called such weather something else? The word’s origins are oddly specific, belonging to the history of how language is shaped by travel and culture. According to an article at

By Rachelle Oblack
Updated October 17, 2019
The word "hurricane" is widely known and recognized, but its etymology is lesser-known.

Named for Mayan God
The English word "hurricane" comes from the Taino (the indigenous people of the Caribbean and Florida) word "Huricán," who was the Carib Indian god of evil.

Their Huricán was derived from the Mayan god of wind, storm, and fire, "Huracán." When the Spanish explorers passed through the Caribbean, they picked it up and it turned into "huracán," which remains the Spanish word for hurricane today. By the 16th century, the word was modified once again to our present-day "hurricane."

Again it is oddly specific; though if we traced the etymology of every word in the English language there might be several others that seem out of place, after all.

(This post was edited by SirDennisC on Oct 19 2021, 4:08am)


Oct 19 2021, 6:33am

Views: 1747
I remember once

It was von Daniken og Velikowski who mentioned the strange coincidence thet the English word ‘hurricane’ was so alike the name of the Aztec stormgod Huracan, it was a proof of precolumbien contact. He evidently didn’t know that origin Smile

"Don't take life seriously, it ain't nohow permanent!" Pogo


Oct 19 2021, 1:42pm

Views: 1720
There are certainly numerous examples in The Hobbit

I am doubtful that Tolkien would have described The Hobbit in the same terms that he described LOTR (in terms of considering each word). He for instance wrote in his letter to Peter Hastings in 1954:

I might not (if The Hobbit had been more carefully written, and my world so much thought about 20 years ago) have used the expression 'poor little blighter', just as I should not have called the troll William.

In another letter to Walter Allen in 1959 he wrote:

When I published The Hobbithurriedly and without due consideration – I was still influenced by the convention that 'fairy-stories' are naturally directed to children

Similarly in a 1961 letter to his aunt Jane Neave:

I have only once made the mistake of trying to do it, to my lasting regret, and (I am glad to say) with the disapproval of intelligent children: in the earlier part of The Hobbit. But I had not then given any serious thought to the matter: I had not freed myself from the contemporary delusions about 'fairy-stories' and children.

I'm pretty sure that in his later life Tolkien would have considered many words used in The Hobbit, particularly the early portions of it, ill-advised.

'But very bright were the stars upon the margin of the world, when at times the clouds about the West were drawn aside.'

The Hall of Fire


Oct 28 2021, 4:47pm

Views: 1156
I'm sure Tolkien would have risen to the challenge...

I like that 'ballast' example! I'm sure Tolkien would have risen to the challenge of retro-fitting a derivation for you - he seemed to enjoy that sort of thing. For example, maybe he'd point out that Sam is speaking Westron, which is (if I remember correctly) of Numenorean origin. So it comes from a famously maritime culture, who presumably would have needed ballast for their ocean-going ships. I quite like the idea of the original meaning being forgotten, and the word morphing into something that gives a hobbit a comforting feeling of satiety.

Or of course Tolkien might have come up with something much better that that. Smile
While it isn't really playing the game, I feel I'd like to make a point about Tolkien's fiction writing here (as opposed to him as a feigned translator). We've discussed before how Tolkien makes hobbits enough like rustic British country folk viewed thorough a happy fog of nostalgia. And that this breaks down if the idea is subjected to close scrutiny by people such as me who are silly enough to try such as strange occupation. That's because a people with the history and situation of the Shire hobbits would probably not be all that much like nostalgically-viewed English countryfolk, who had of course have different cultural baggage (or ballast!) None of this is a new insight to veterans of this board, of course!

I don't suppose it really had to be a binary (EITHER make the hobbits culturally easy to understand and like OR make them authentic to a landlubbing, inoffensive, autarkic people in a medieval world). But I'm glad Tolkien didn't do what some fantasy writers have done: make such a big thing of their world-building that the story becomes mired in it, forcing me to puzzle over made-up words and concepts and the worldbuilding before I've decided whether I give a fig about the characters, situation and plot.

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Nov 3 2021, 1:54am

Views: 1101
Well, JRR Tolkien was always going with the word first and its origins

"Noun and Verb

probably from Low German, of Scandinavian origin; akin to Danish & Swedish barlast ballast; perhaps akin to Old English bær bare & to Old English hlæst load, hladan to load — more at LADE"

The Vales of Anduin were the original home of the Hobbits so at least historically, they would have seen river boats of various types. The word can be carried forward in time - they probably knew what sails were too even if the did not sail.


Jan 9, 1:14pm

Views: 127
My best guess

is that we would need knowledge about the words used in his time both in "standard language" and any dialectal idioms he might be familiar with too, to be able to sort out all problems ...