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 t_he 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:
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!
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?