A Tolkien English Glossary

A Tolkien English Glossary: A Guide to Old, Uncommon, and Archaic Words Used in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Oliver Loo. Lulu, 2009. 291 pp. $39.80 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-557-31855-1.

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Reviewed by Jason Fisher

[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 48:6 (#347) in June 2011.]

I have mixed feelings about Loo’s Tolkien English Glossary. On one hand, it’s a wonderful idea. Tolkien’s vocabulary, including words rescued from the brink of oblivion, gives many readers trouble, and a convenient glossary defining these words, in the same order they are encountered in the text, could be a very useful thing. In fact, it’s the kind of thing I wish I’d thought to do myself. On that score, I am very sympathetically inclined toward Loo’s project.

It is also clear that a great deal of labor went into it. The book defines more than 1,000 words from The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings, breaking them down first by book, then giving them in two useful sequences: (1) in the order of their first appearance, and (2) alphabetically. The copyright indicates 2004–2009, and it is not hard to imagine five years of toil buried in these pages.

The work is not analytic, but rather synthetic. It is not subjective, but objective. It is intended as a straightforward reference work, and it was assembled in much the same way as any other glossary. Once the list of candidate words had been assembled, Loo had only to look them up in a good dictionary, determine the appropriate sense in the context of the novel, and edit the dictionary definitions down into a more succinct form. This would have been a monotonous, mind-numbing task, so I applaud Loo for enduring it in the interests of helping to make clear so many of Tolkien’s odd or difficult words. In many ways, Loo’s effort is the logical extension of the “Short Glossary of Obsolete, Archaic, and Rare Words” that Christopher Tolkien published with The Book of Lost Tales. The purpose is similar, but Loo’s choice of words is much broader, and it covers not seldom read posthumous drafts but rather Tolkien’s most widely-read and enduring works.

But having given the concept its proper due, I must now discuss the execution, in which there are many flaws. Setting aside superficial complaints about the layout and book design (this is a self-published work, and that is quite obvious), the book suffers from some serious missteps. For one, the randomness of it. I said above that the glossary is not subjective, but its scope certainly is. Any word list will be, but the words Loo chooses to define are those that were unfamiliar to him. Regrettably, many of the words he did not know are quite familiar to most of us, and neither old, nor uncommon, nor archaic — e.g., well-to-do, queer, flustered, morsel, throng, wits, haughty, wretched. These many familiar words have the effect of undermining Loo’s mission, though to be fair, many words Loo defines are less common and better suited to his purpose — e.g., braces, bewuthered, weregild, stirrup cup, not to mention the innumerable trees, blossoms, and shrubs that crop up like crabgrass in Tolkien’s more flowery passages!

A second problem is the almost careless choice of dictionary the author used in defining these words. For a serious glossary, one has a right to expect definitions from the Oxford English Dictionary, both for its plenitude and its close connection to Tolkien. Writes Loo: “I could not just use any pocket dictionary […]. I finally settled on an old, three-volume dictionary published in the 20’s that contained the words I was looking for, together with their correct (I presume) meanings […]” (4). He later identifies this as the New Century Dictionary (1927–31). The choice appears completely random, though fortunately, most of the definitions in Loo’s book are good. To his credit, he “purposely used an old dictionary, one in use before [Tolkien’s] books were written, as definitions and meanings change over the course of time and [he] wanted to get the older definitions, as Tolkien intended them” (op.cit.).

Finally, Loo is not particularly well qualified for this kind of job. I say this with some reluctance, because I do not wish to diminish my support for the idea behind the glossary, but it is unfortunately true. To be most valuable, such a project really calls for an expert on language, not merely a curious reader — even if Loo understands his intended audience very well, being one of them! Even without the introduction, a nagging suspicion would grow on any educated reader that Loo is in over his head, but the introduction makes this painfully clear. One example: where Tom Bombadil gives each of the hobbits “a dagger, long, leaf-shaped, and keen”, Loo suggests that it might be “unclear or debatable” whether Tolkien intended the adjective keen (“sharp”) or the verb keen (“to wail in lamentation”). It is neither unclear nor debatable. Clearly, Loo lacks a certain fundamental understanding of how language works, in spite of his excellent intentions.

The glossary would be most useful to young people and students whose own vocabularies are still growing.  For these readers, it could be quite a valuable reference. A smaller portion of the glossary should be useful to readers of all ages and backgrounds, but the majority of the words are not so unfamiliar to this reviewer as they were to the author. Because the book is self-published, it may only be purchased at But the up-side of self-publication is that it’s available in multiple formats — hardcover, softcover, and electronic — for prices ranging from the $39.80 quoted at the top of this review all the way down to $9.99 for a simple PDF.

A Tolkien English Glossary: A Guide to Old, Uncommon, and Archaic Words Used in The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit. Oliver Loo. Lulu, 2009. 291 pp. $39.80 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-557-31855-1.

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