Thursday, December 20, 2012

Alternatives to Being a Hobbit

I’d always just assumed that J.R.R. Tolkien invented the word hobbit. And while he apparently did, his story about how he came to use it allows for the possibility that he maybe didn’t. As he recalled in a letter to W.H. Auden in 1955, “On a blank leaf I scrawled: ‘In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.’ I did not and do not know why.” And if that’s the true story, isn’t it wild that what amounts to a nonsense sentence grew into a book that spun off into The Lord of the Rings and was therefore responsible for the movies, worldwide awareness of New Zealand and endless debates about the dramatic strengths and failings of Liv Tyler?

In the same way that embiggen appeared in print 112 years before The Simpsons popularized it, there’s exactly one instance of hobbit appearing in print before The Hobbit was published in 1937. Excerpted on Etymonline, the passage is folklorist Michael Aislabie Denham’s extremely long 1895 list of British supernatural creatures (and thereabouts). And it’s one of those chunks of text that overwhelms language-lovers like me with dueling reactions of “So quaint!” and “So British!” and “What the hell?”

My curiosity got the better of me, and I did some poking around Denham’s list, broken up onto separate lines with links and notes explaining what weird folklore Denham is talking about. In some cases, I had no idea, and in others the term doesn’t need any explanation, but I threw in some history if it seemed interesting. Like in the very first one, for example. But here’s the thing: I could not find anything about the term hobbit, and its presence on this pre-Tolkienverse list makes for a neat little linguistic mystery. (I go on a bit about it at the very end of the post. Hit the jump and scroll to the bottom if you’re interested.)

First, the list, in strange, jumbled order that Denham wrote it:

ghosts (According to Etymonline, we get it from the Old English gast, which could mean “soul, spirit, life, breath, good or bad spirit, angel, demon” but which took on the current meaning, “soul of a dead person,” when it became the word chosen to translate the Latin word spiritus in Christian writing.)

boggles (the critter of the British supernatural world, basically, a word that’s closely related to a ton of others on this list, thanks to the Middle English bugge, “something frightening)

bloody-bones (According to Wikipedia, a boogeyman used to “awe children, and keep them in subjections” and that “lived in a dark cupboard, usually under the stairs. If you were heroic enough to peep through a crack you would get a glimpse of the dreadful, crouching creature, with blood running down his face, seated waiting on a pile of raw bones that had belonged to children who told lies or said bad words.”)

spirits (worth pointing out the connection to the Latin spirare, “breath,” and all the words we get from that, and the very obvious connection to breathing and not being dead yet)

demons (from the Greek daimon“deity, divine power; lesser god; guiding spirit, tutelary deity”)

ignis fatui (literally “foolish fire,” but referring to the burning methane more often called will-o’-the-wisp, a natural phenomenon that appears many times on this list, with many different names)

The rest of the long, long list after the jump.

brownies (not the mini-Girl Scouts, but about as dependable around the house; a diminutive of the Scottish “wee brown man”)

bugbears (another monster made up to terrify naughty children, it will also go by the name bugboo)

black dogs (a demonic ghost dog along the lines of The Hound of the Baskervilles, and another creature that Denham lists again and again)

specters (literally “a vision”)

shellycoats (river monster whose coat is literally made of shells)

scarecrows, witches, wizards

barguests (more often barghest, and either one particular demonic ghost dog or an elf, so pick your fancy)

Robin-Goodfellows (Puck, essentially, but the name is a euphemism people would use when talking about the Devil so he wouldn’t show up. “Speak of the Devil,” and all that.)

hags (the old women who aren’t your sainted grandmother)

night-bats (as opposed to the other kinds???)

scrags (a very skinny person, apparently)

breaknecks (not completely sure on this one, but given this British adjective meaning “dangerous or reckless,” I’d guess it’s either the person of that or someone who breaks your neck, I’d guess)

fantasms (old spelling of phantasm, a ghost)

hobgoblins (Or as the hurried would call them, goblins, but the take away here is that that word part hob-, according to Etymonline, is a nickname for Rob in that old-timey, British nickname system that also calls Richard Hick or Rodger Hodge, and it’s short for the aforementioned Robin Goodfellow. According to Wikipedia, a hob is just a household spirit.)

hobhoulards (a hobgoblin that howls, basically, but that second part might be related to owlet)

boggy-boes (I’m assuming that it’s the same gang as the bugbears and the bugboos)

dobbies (a “thin and shaggy” household spirit that does cute little favors for servants and children, and yes, it’s what inspired the Harry Potter Dobby)

hob-thrusts (according to the Monstropedia, it’s a brownie which carries an iron pot in which he stirs a dish made from children’s thumb bones)

fetches (“apparition, specter, a double,” possibly coming from a different etymology than the more familiar fetch although we’re not sure, and giving rise to the term fetch candle, “a corpse candle supposed to pass between the home and the grave of the beholder,” etc., etc., Gretchen Weiners)

kelpies (a supernatural water horse — but not a seahorse — that could also look like a pretty lady)

warlocks (the boy of witch, as Cordelia Chase once put it, the word comes from the Old English wærloga, “traitor,” and went from untrustworthy humans to “giants and canniabls” to those in league with the Devil)

mock-beggars (there’s no shortage of places named Mockbeggar, but the origin of those names seem equally obscure, so I’m inclined to assume it’s someone who looks like a harmless panhandler then murders you; that said, beggar may in some cases be an alteration of the French boggard/boggart)

mum-pokers (tempted to say this is an old-timey way of saying motherfucker, but it’s actually a nursery room goblin that stalks its prey silently)

Jemmy-burties (according to this book, it’s another name for ignis fatuus, or the will-o’-the-wisp; the second part may just be a diminutive of burt, Middle English for “bright)

urchins (poor children, as dangerous as ghosts and fairies)

satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, tritons, centaurs (see, Denham got to the Greek section, though I sometimes forget that Triton from the Disney Little Mermaid is named after a Greek mythological character)

calcars (unsure on this one, though its Latin for “spur” and can mean refer in English to a small oven or furnace)

nymphs (like poor children, loose women are also dangerous; the word actually once meant “wife, young bride” in Greek, but it became more salacious and mythological over time)

imps (went from the agricultural (“young shoot, graft”) to the household (“child”) to the otherworldly as a result of what Etymonline terms “pejorative phrases like imp of Satan)

incubuses (but curiously not hand-in-hand with succubuses, despite their interlocking natures and etymologies)

spoorns (still confused, but might have some connection to calcar, as spoorn is German for “spur,” and both words appear side-by-side more than once in the 1921 fantasy novel Figures of Earth)

men-in-the-oak (Google is just no help on this one, but couldn’t it be the Green Men?)

hell-wains (a guess: given how wain means “wagon,” which isn’t a creature, necessarily, but still wouldn’t be out of place in the company of all these other weirdos)

fire-drakes (a fire-breathing dragon)

kit-a-can-sticks (will-o’-the-wisp once again, and apparently it can also be kit of the candlestick, kitty candlestick and kitty with the wisp,)

Tom-tumblers (apparently Tom Thumb, but a less pleasant one that the one popularized by the story about the tiny boy, which itself dates back to at least 1621)

melch-dicks (I’d guess anything from a sexually transmitted disease to some mangling of the Biblical name Melchizedek, but it’s actually Melsh Dick and, a “sylvan spirit” and “the protector of hazelnuts.” And what does melsh mean? “Moist.” Yep, dude’s name is “Moist Dick.”)

larrs (Wikipedia says it’s the the lares, the Roman household deities)

kitty-witches (tragically human witches and not little cats who are also witches, though that’s still totally a thing)

hobby-lanthorns (lantern-carrying goblin)

Dick-a-Tuesdays (a goblin, though we’re not sure why a Tuesday goblin, especially because “all goblins and ‘bugs’ were created, imperfectly, on Friday”)

elf-fires (once again, will-o’-the-wisp)

Gyl-burnt-tales (and again, will-o’-the-wisp, though this one is alleged to be a corruption of jinn with a burnt tail)

knockers (mine-goblins, but also ha ha ha knockerselves)

rawheads (“specter” or “scarechild”)

Meg-with-the-wads (will-o-the-wisp)

old-shocks (a nickname for the Devil in the style of Old Scratch)

ouphs (“a fairy or a sprite”)

pad-foot (another name for those black dogs and hellhounds)

pixies (of debated origin, but notable for being responsible for one of my favorite obscure words, pixilated, which is different than pixelated)

pictrees (a ghost)

giants, dwarfs (together again!)

Tom-pokers (The Devil)

tutgots (no clue)

snapdragons (probably less so the flower and more so the mock villain this amazing parlor game in which children snatched raisins from flaming brandy, which, by the way, sounds awesome)

sprets (surely it’s sprite, no?)

spunks (unsure on this one, though it makes sense in the way that we use spunk to mean “spirit, and also you’ll be gratified to know that we’ve been using it to mean “semen” since at least 1888)


thurses (a giant, a specter or a giant specter, and no, I’m not kidding)

spurns (which appear to just be an alternate form of spoorn)

tantarrabobs (a name for the Devil, according to Etymonline, and possibly the word that gave us the word tantrabobus/tantrabogus, a Vermont word for “any odd-looking object,” which in turn might have given us the word bogus)

swaithes (perhaps some relation to swath, but I couldn’t guess why)

tints (in the context of shade, I’m guessing)

tod-lowries (“The Yarthkins and Tiddy Muns and Tod Lowries are queer, primeval, dangerous spirits, breathing pesiltelence and having to be constantly placated,” according to this book, though I’ll point out that the Australian footballer Todd Lowry makes researching this one fairly difficult)

Jack-in-the-Wads (the will-o’-the-wisp, yet again, and quite possibly the sibling to Meg-with-the-wads, because why not?)

mormos (a “spirit who bit bad children” and a creature from Greek mythology, says Wikipedia)

changelings (a concept many people my age learned about from The Labyrinth, the word for a baby stolen and replaced by spirits was previously oaf, oddly enough)

redcaps (a goblin said to inhabit castles and murder travelers in order to dye their little hats with the blood, according to Wikipedia)

yeth-hounds (“heath hounds,” and those same devil dogs previously mentioned — “a headless dog, said to be the spirit of an unbaptised child, which rambles through the woods at night making wailing noises”)

colt-pixies (an evil spirit that leads horses astray, possibly into bogs, like what happened poor Artax)

Tom-thumbs (like the tom-tumblers, a more evil version of the Tom Thumb we know and love and celebrate every day)

black-bugs (not insects but otherworldly unfriendlies, in the sense of bugbear and bugboo, though the etymology is apparently the same)

boggarts (according to Wikipedia, either a household spirit that places its clammy hands on the faces of sleeping people or a genius loci inhabiting marshes, holes, bridges or sharp curves in the road)

scar-bugs (a harder-to-Google phrase than you might expect)

shag-foals (according to this site, “a shaggy-haired donkey with fiery eyes from the tales of Lincolnshire, England. It would appear on the sides of lonely roads only at night. When travellers passed nearby it would frighten and chase them. Other than causing terror, it has never killed or hurt its victims.”)

hodge-pochers (a nickname for Rodger plus an alternate form of poker, it looks like, and apparently unrelated to the word hodgepodge)

hob-thrushes (a.k.a. the previously mentioned hob-thrust, who is a horror)

bugs (again, not insects)

bull-beggars (either “goblin” or “bugbear” or “something used or suggested to produce terror, as in children or persons of weak mind”)

bygorns (a long shot: bygorn = bi-corn = “two horns”?)

caddies (not the supernatural aspects of golf, unfortunately)

bomen (just a contraction for bogeyman, Wikipedia says)

brags (“a creature from the folklore of Northumberland and Durham that usually takes the form of a horse or donkey; it is fond of tricking unwary wayfarers into riding on its back before throwing the rider into a pool of water or bush before running off laughing”)

wraiths (a familiar word whose etymology is uncertain)

waffs (“a wraith whose appearance portends death,” and a word that seems like it might be related to the verb waffle though not the noun waffle)

flay-boggarts (the members of the bog family that skin their victims, I’m assuming)

fiends (presumably not being assigned to the elements of earth, water, air and fire, necessarily)

gallytrots (the ghost dog, once again)

imps (again)

gytrashes (a different sort of ghost canine)

patches (current uses of the word patch have made this word pointless to research)

hob-and-lanthorns (not significantly different from hobby-lanthorns)

gringes (unsure, but I’m guessing the similarity to Grinch is coincidental)

boguests (a Yorkshire-specific demon dog; can also be rendered as barghest, bargtjest and several other ways; theories about etymology include the German Berg-geist (“mountain spirit”), Bär-geist (“bear-spirit”), and Bier-Geist, “spirit of the funeral bier.”))

bonelesses (an amorphous, Smoke Monster-y boogeything, described in a 1916 account excerpted here as follows: “a shapeless summat as slides behind and alongside in the dark night. Many’s have died of fright through his following on. They can’t never tell about him except he’s a big shadow and shapeless”)

Peg-powlers (according to Wikipedia, “a hag from English folklore with green skin, long hair and sharp teeth who is said to inhabit the River Tees. She grabs the ankles of those who wander too close to the water's edge, especially naughty children, and pulls them under the water and drowns them”)

pucks (yeah, that Puck, but also Robin Goodfellow, since that’s a name people used for him when they didn’t want to speak his actual name and summon him; incidentally, the name is related to pooka, the rabbit spirit from the movie Harvey)

fays (“fairy,” and it’s actually related to that word, as well as to fate)

kidnappers (supernatural and otherwise)

gallybeggars (a corpse-looking spirit that carries its own head and spooks travelers)

hudskins (seems like I’m only finding hits for this very passage, so I’m guessing that it’s something awful that takes your skin and wears it like a hood)

nickers (probably not underwear but the Scandinavian nykr, a supernatural river horse that’s related, supernatural-wise and word-wise, to the nixie)

madcaps (cap is “head,” and it’s meant to mean “crazy person”)


robinets (no clue, because it’s just a robin, but weirdly it’s also French for “a small sheep”)

friars’ lanthorns (yet another will-o’-the-wisp)

silkies (usually selkie, they’re seals that turn into ladies to traipse about on land)

cauld-lads (the ghost of a murdered boy that inhabits Hylton Castle and cries, “I’m cauld!” … see, because he’s cold and that’s how he says it)

death-hearses (perhaps not actually the vehicle used to transport dead bodies, since the word originally meant “flat framework for candles, hung over a coffin”)

goblins (And after all that, we come to goblin, which doesn’t need to be explained, I suppose, but it’s worth noting that we’re not sure where the word actually comes from, though it may be related to cobalt)

hob-headlesses (a ghoul residing near the River Kent who would glue people in place so they couldn’t run away)

bugaboos (the more familiar way of writing out boggy-boes)

kows or cowes (presumably the Hedley Kow, an evil spirit that can change its shape at will but prefers the form of a cow, which seems unambitious)

nickies, nacks, necks (the lady in the water, presuming this is just an alternate take on nixie)

waiths (“ownerless property, stray animal,” and apparently related to waif)

miffies (All I’ve got is “a class of spirits.”)

buckies (again, nothing aside from “whelk” or “snail shell”)

ghouls (notably from the Arabic ghul, “an evil spirit that robs graves and feeds on corpses”)

sylphs (coined by Paracelsus when he wanted to invent an air elemental, it’s supposed that it could be a combo of silva, “forest,” and nymph)

guests (probably from the time when the word meant “enemy” or “stranger” as opposed to “person you’re happy to have come over,” and despite what you might guess from this list, Etymonline doesn’t seem to say that there’s an etymological connection between guest and ghost)

swarths (I’m guessing it’s some connection with swarthy and schwarz, both of which mean “black”)

freiths, freits (My only guesses are a variation on fright or the Anglo-Norman freit, “cold”)

gy-carlins, Gyre-carling (both the queen of the fairies in Scottish folklore, with the first part either being either a cognate with the Norse geri, “greedy” or gýgr, “ogress,” and the second part being a Scots or Northern English word meaning “old woman.” )

pigmies (historically, a member of race of dwarves , as described by Homer and Herotodus, and the term is related to pugnacious, for measurement reasons)

chittifaces (one who has a thin, pinched faced; used as a term of contempt)

nixies (the same as the aforementioned nickies, nacks and necks)

Jinny-burnt-tails (a variation on gyl-burnt-tale , which itself is a variation on jinn with a burnt tail)

dudmen (a ragman or scarecrow)

hell-hounds (it’s, um, a hellhound)

dopple-gangers (those famous double-goers)

boggleboes (another variation on bugaboo)

bogies (a mysterious spirit, a hobgoblin)

redmen (unknown, but hopefully not something racist)

portunes (“the wizened and wrinled portune was a typical brownie-type fairy, delighted to help with farm work provided no payment was offered”)

grants (no clue, but maybe… giants? in the sense of grand meaning “big”?)

hobbits (of course, I haven’t got a clue what this was supposed to mean when the text was written, and it’s hard to search for the term separately from the Tolkienverse, especially at this precise moment in pop culture)

hobgoblins (yes, this one is actually repeated from the earlier mention, letter for letter)

brown-men (this also seems a little racist, but Wikipedia says it’s a reference to the Simonside Dwarves)

cowies (the Hedley Kow, again)

dunnies (if not the Hazelrigg Dunnie, which took the form of a cow to irritate farmers and terrify children, then something more or less like it)

wirrikows (more often worricow or wurrycow, it’s “a bugbear, a hobgoblin”)

alholdes (according to this book, it’s the Germanic goddess Holda, associated with spinning, childbirth, witches, hunting, winter and all sorts of fairytale tropes)

mannikins (apparently used to mean “a short person,” it’s also used to refer to those “little men” jointed models that artists use)

follets (seeing how feufollet is the French word for “will-o’-the-wisp,” I’m guessing it’s that… yet again)

korreds (red-eyed creatures who live in megalithic dolmen tombs and guard treasure)

lubberkins (a.k.a. the Lubber fiend, a Puck-like character who performs chores in exchange for saucers of milk)

cluricauns (also cluricane and clutharachán, it’s Irish spirit similar to a leprechaun who wears red instead of green and who “is dressed like a weekend gentleman with silver buckles on his shoes, gold lace on his cap, and blue silk stockings below his breeches”)

kobolds (a Germanic dwarf that occupies the linguistic space between goblin and cobalt; Wikipedia notes that “Kobolds who live in human homes wear the clothing of peasants; those who live in mines are hunched and ugly; and kobolds who live on ships smoke pipes and wear sailor clothing,” and I think that’s a very handy way to differentiate your kobolds)

leprechauns (purveyors of cereal marshmallows and Irish stereotypes; the word literally means “a very small body,” from lu, “little,” and corpan, the diminutive of corp, “body”)

mares (it’s literally nightmares personified, with the second syllable of nightmare coming from the Old English word for an incubus or succubus)

korreds (again)

puckles (Puck, puca or pooka, once again)

korigans (a Breton spirit that can either be dwarves that dance around fountains (but cannot name off all the days of the week) or sexy sirens who lure men to a watery death, so you’ve got options)

sylvans (guessing it’s just sylphs again)

succubuses (and, at long last, the girl incubuses; people realize that succubus and incubus come from the Latin for “to lie beneath” and “to lie upon,” respectively, yes?)

blackmen (for a third time, hopefully not something racist)


banshees (caterwauling ghost lady; notably, the literal meaning of the original Irish, bean sidhe, is “female of the elves,” and that bean is related to the word queen)

lian-hanshees (more often leanan sidhe, “fairy lover,” is a creature who indulges in ill-fated relationships with humans and who may or may not be a vampire)

clabbernappers (given how clabber is a cheese-like food, I’m guessing the clabbernappers are mean spirits that attempt to foil human’s delicious clabber feasts in the way that butterflies were disguised witches who stole dairy products)

Gabriel-hounds (yet another demon dog)

mawkins (variously a simpleton, a hare, a kitchenmaid, a slattern, a cat, a mop or a scarecrow)

doubles (doppelgangers, again)

corpse lights or candles (like a cross between a will-o’-the-wisp and a fetch candle, it’s a light thought to float from a dying person’s house to the cemetery… and then back again, for some reason)

scrats (Wiktionary states, without any explanation, that it can be a hermaphrodite, but I’m guessing it’s Old Scratch once again)

mahounds (the prophet Mohammed, surprisingly)

trows (a troll-like thing living in the Shetlands and Orkneys, fond of music and prone to kidnapping musicians for in-house performances)

gnomes (important to note that they once supposedly dwelled deep within the earth and not in front yard gardens)

sprites (from the Latin spiritus, which makes your video games seem a lot more spiritual, now that you think about it)

fates (those weird sisters, but in a generic sense)

fiends (again)

sibyls (classy, classical prophetesses who really wouldn’t keep company with demons and goblins, you’d think)

nicknevins (another name for the Gyre-carling)

whitewomen (more often witte wieven, “white women” but “wise women” in Low Saxon, they are “the spirits of wise women or priestesses, and haunt the forest, lakes, swamps, hills and megaliths”)

fairies (Notably, it only took on the meaning of “diminutive winged beings so-called in children's stories” in the seventeenth century, and as it’s pointed out on Etymonline, Tolkien himself notes this transition rather poignantly: “I suspect that this flower-and-butterfly minuteness was also a product of ‘rationalization,’ which transformed the glamour of Elfland into mere finesse, and invisibility into a fragility that could hide in a cowslip or shrink behind a blade of grass. It seems to become fashionable soon after the great voyages had begun to make the world seem too narrow to hold both men and elves; when the magic land of Hy Breasail in the West had become the mere Brazils, the land of red-dye-wood.”)

thrummy-caps (a “queer-looking old man,” with thrummy basically meaning “frayed”)

cutties (more often Cutty Soames, they’re mine goblins who would cut soames, or ropes)

nisses (the Swedish tomtenisse, it’s basically a little psycho who held hostage the occupants of Scandinavian farms)

and apparitions of every shape, make, form, fashion, kind and description (the countless others he forgot to include, but let’s be honest — most of them were probably different words for the will-o’-the-wisp)

A note: Initially, I just found the Denham Tracts list as it appeared on Etymonline, and I began looking up the stranger entries in Google Books to see what I could turn up whenever I had a little spare time. Only much later, when I started searching for the hard-to-find entries did I realize that the passage had its own section on Wikipedia, with links explaining the entries. However, Wikipedia doesn’t explain all the entries, and I’m not sure I agree with all of Wikipedia’s connections: shag-foal links to “Black dog,” for example. So I just continued.

Another note: Denham’s list is very strange, and I’m not talking about the subject matter. First, it’s based off an older text: Reginald Scot’s 1584 The Discoverie of Witchcraft. (Go here and control-F “urchens” to see the original text.) Denham added a lot, but many of his additions are redundant. He had nine entries for will-o’-the-wisp, certain words show up twice, other words reappear slightly misspelled, and he didn’t bother to sort it thoroughly, though there are attempts at grouping — a bunch of Greek mythology creatures lumped together, but not all of the Greek mythology creatures, for example. I’m not complaining, just commenting on how strange it is to have an academic resource that so plainly preserves the author’s disorganization, especially considering that the text was edited in the 1890s.

It’s especially puzzling to me that Denham would have made the list but not explained the creatures he was listing. Had he done so, we might know today whether some form of a hobbit existed before Tolkien dreamed up his big-footed characters, or at least how people used the term before Tolkien made it his own. Until we know, we just have this massively popular cultural entity based around the word hobbit, and a curious footnote predating it all but offering no answers.

And once again: night-bats? Really.

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