Reading Tolkien can Broaden Your Command of English (even if you aren’t taking SATs)
When I was in business school a few years ago, all the students were categorized (very informally) into “quants” or “poets” — based on whether you had an engineering/math background, or a liberal arts background.
While I didn’t mind this categorization at all, I recall during my own middle and high school years that we geeks were stereotyped as not appreciating literature. Which is odd, because the one thing we geeks love to do is read. We may (or may not) have read Hemingway (except for in a class); but almost all geeks like to read SF&F (science fiction and fantasy).
I first read the Hobbit ( a pretty easy read) and started reading the Lord of the Rings (not so easy read) when I was in the sixth grade. I’ve probably re-read them every few years since then (at least until the Peter Jackson movies came out) owning many different editions of the books.
It wasn’t just Tolkien’s love for made-up languages that made it a tougher read (Tolkien after all was a professor of medieval languages at Oxford, and in fact, at one point he described the whole reason for the Middle Earth was that he wanted to complete the language of the Elves).
For an impatient teenager like me who had grown up on Star Wars and Superman movies, it was also the “pacing” and what I thought of informally as the “boring parts”.
I couldn’t really tell you the difference between dales and vales and glens and ferns and dells, I honestly could’ve cared less. I just wanted to get to the Elves and wizards and dwarves, and the incredible fantasy locales like Rivendell , the Mines of Moria, the Bridge of Khaza-dum or the magical Lothlorien.
Tolkien liked to spend many paras describing the landscape that the hobbits were traveling through, including descriptions of flora and fauna and weather and the road on days where nothing of note happened.
“It was the night of the fifth of October, and they were six days out from Bree. In the morning they found, for the first time since they had left the Chetwood, a track plain to see … It dived into dells, and hugged steep banks …”
And then, every now and then there would be a passage like this one:
“Great ilexes of huge girth stood dark and solemn in wide glades with here and there among them hoary ash-trees, and giant oaks …”
I certainly know what an oak tree is. I am not ashamed to admit that I don’t know what an ilex is (most likely a kind of tree!). I couldn’t tell you off hand exactly what a glade is — something to do with trees (or lack thereof) . But what the hell are hoary ash-trees? Again, I am not ashamed to admit, that as a fairly well educated geek — having read Tolkien dozens of times, and armed with degrees from MIT and Stanford — I have no idea what these are!
Recently, I had a lot of time on my hands, and I re-read the full quadrilogy — rather than watching the Peter Jackson movies (which is what I had been doing in recent years when I was missing hanging out with some of my oldest friends — Bilbo, Frodo, Gandalf, not to mention Gimli, Legolas, Merry, Pippin and of course Strider).
This time, I read the books on my kindle, which made it easier to look up the definitions of:
- a word that I had never heard of (happened now and then),
- a word that I only vaguely knew the meaning of (happened very often).
Looking back, I wish I had this auto lookup ability when I was reading LOTR in high school - it just might have helped me with my verbal SAT scores!
So, in honor of the many Geeks who love to read, and the many fans of Tolkien, here are 20 vocabulary words that I came across (and their corresponding definitions) in LOTR that you may not know:
If you’ve read LOTR, how many of the words you already know ? Bonus if you can figure out where in LOTR the sample usage is located!
- hauberk: usage in LOTR : “‘No mail have we to fit you,’ said Eowyn, ‘nor any time for the forging of such a hauberk; but here is also a stout jerkin of leather, a belt, and a knife.” def: a piece of armor originally covering only the neck and shoulders but later consisting of a full length coat of mail or military tunic.
- jerkin — def: a sleveless jacket.
- ilex — usage in LOTR given earlier. def; “another term for HOLM OAK”, or “a tree or shrub of a genus that includes holly and its relatives”.
- hoary — usage in LOTR given earlier. def: this can mean “grayish-white” or “old and trite”.
- charnel —usage in LOTR: “Luminous these were too, beautiful and yet horrible of shape, like the demented forms in an uneasy dream; and they forth a faint sickening charnel-smell;” def: “associated with death”.
- dun — usage in LOTR: “Looking out from the covert he could see only a dun, shadowless world, fading slowly into a featureless, colourless gloom.” def: of a dull grayish-brown color.
- hyacinth — usage in LOTR: “and there were acres populous with the leaves of woodland hyacinths; already their sleek bell-stems …”. def: a bulbous plant of the lily family, with starlike leaves and a compact spike of bell shaped fragrant flowers.
- frond —usage in LOTR: “Here Spring was already busy about them: fronds pierced moss and mould, larches were green-fingered, small flowers were opening in the turf, birds were singing.” def: the leaf or leaflike part of a palm, fern or similar plant.
- gorse — a yellow flowered shrub of the pea family, the leaves of which are modified to form spines. LOTR usage: “For the most part it was covered with a thick growth of gorse and whortleberry, and low tough thorns.”
- bivouac — usage in LOTR : “The host was bivouacked in the pine-woods that clustered about Eilenach Beacon, a tall hill standing up from the long ridges of he Druaden Forest …” def: a temporary camp without tents of cover, use esp. by soldiers or mountaineers.
- oast — LOTR usage: “The townlands were rich, with wide tilth and many orchards and homesteads there were with oast and garner, fold and byre, and many rills rippling through the green…”. def: a kiln for drying hops.
- quay — a concrete, stone, or metal platform lying alongside projecting into water for loading and unloading ships. “There Anduin, going in a wide kneee about the hills of Emyn Arnen in South Ithilien, bent sharply west, and the out-wall rose upon its very brink; and beneath it lay the quays.”
- kine — LOTR usage: “far back into the vanished years before the failing of the kings, since Vorondil father of Mardil hunted the wild kine of Araw in the far fields of Rhun.” def: cows collectively.
- turves — LOTR usage: “He cut out some turves at the foot of the bank just outside the fern-brake, and made a shallow hole and laid his fuel in it.” def: plural form of turf.
- glade — LOTR usage: “.. and other kinds unknown in the Shire, with wide glades among them;” def: an open space in a forest.
- carrion — LOTR usage: “They are like great carrion birds.” def: the decaying flesh of dead animals.
- pinion — LOTR usage : “They were very small to look at, yet he knew, somehow that they were huge, with a vast stretch of pinion, flying at a great height.” def: the outer part of the a bird’s wing including the flight feathers.
- fen — LOTR usage: “It seemed as if whole armies were on the march, though fro the. most part they were hidden by the reeks and fumes drifting form the fens and wastes beyond.” def: a low and marshy or frequently flooded area of land.
- fallow — LOTR usage: “Day came, and the fallow sun blinked over the lifeless ridges of Ered Lithui.” There are several definitions and I got the wrong one at first: plowed and harrowed but left unsown for a period. The right definition: a pale brown or reddish yellow color.
- tamarisk. LOTR usage: “Many great trees grew there, planted long ago, falling into untended age amid a riot of careless descendants; and groves and thickets there were of tamarisk …” def: An Old World shrub or small tree with tiny scalelike leaves borne on slender branches, giving it a feathery appearance.
- Bonus words: The townlands were rich, with wide tilth and many orchards and homesteads there were with oast and garner, fold and byre, and many rills rippling through the green…” OK so what exactly are: tilth, garner, fold, byre, and rills??
And there you go — these 20 are by no means the only vocabulary words I found in LOTR that I didn’t know. You can just pick up the book and within a few pages I think most modern readers, esp. geeks like me, won’t know the exact definition of.
Tolkien had quite the vocabulary. In some cases he used words that while apparent to him what they meant, were hard even for the Kindle to look up using the New Oxford dictionary.
As you’ll see above, many of the words dealt with nature — these may have been common knowledge to educated Englishmen of Tolkien’s generation, but to today’s American city-dwelling geeks, they might as well be made up Elvish names from the Undying Lands!
Still, this time when I read the whole books, by not skipping “the boring parts”, I actually enjoyed his descriptions of the countryside. It really enhanced my respect for Tolkien the writer but also my appreciation for the clarity of his vision of Middle Earth.
So who says SF&F can’t be educational too?