The Bookshelf: Miscellany IX.

Two weeks till Christmas, so for those of you who celebrate it and are looking with increasing desperation for possible gifts, here are some books I’ve gotten review copies of that look worth considering:

1) Hit Parade, by Artur Punte, Vladimir Svetlov, Sergej Timofejev, and Semyon Khanin (The Orbita Group): I had never heard of the Orbita Group or any of the poets, so I wasn’t expecting anything when the book unexpectedly showed up, but hey, the original Russian with facing-page translations, worth taking a look. To my surprise, every time I opened the book at random I found myself reading lines out loud and enjoying the poetry immensely. These poets are from Riga and (according to the introduction) all speak Latvian fluently; they “draw on a cosmopolitan catalogue of sources and traditions,” including “Latvian poetic greats such as Aleksandrs Čaks, contemporary Latvian poets and artists, Swedish jazz, French film, contemporary vampire novels and cartoon network fantasies, or the work culture of copywriters and fashion photographers.” The translations seem uniformly good, and the translators include the superb Polina Barskova. Try it, you won’t be disappointed. (More at the publisher’s site for the book.)

2) From Skedaddle to Selfie: Words of the Generations, by Allan Metcalf: The conceit is “words that have come to define different generations in history”; as this review says:

This generational sociology is merely the organizing principle behind the book, and while it offers an entertaining framework, one gets the impression Metcalf himself treats it with a grain of salt. The more interesting part is the quick and dirty survey of word history. The entries are short, and far from complete (by Metcalf’s own admission), but they offer an interesting insight into the often uncommon origins of some of our language’s more common phrases and slang.

There’s more information, including the table of contents, at the publisher’s site.

3) The Ring of Words: Tolkien and the Oxford English Dictionary, by Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall, and Edmund Weiner: The title says it all; here’s a description from the publisher:

Here three senior editors of the OED offer an intriguing exploration of Tolkien’s career as a lexicographer and illuminate his creativity as a word user and word creator. The centerpiece of the book is a wonderful collection of “word studies” which will delight the heart of Ring fans and word lovers everywhere. The editors look at the origin of such Tolkienesque words as “hobbit,” “mithril, “Sméagol,” “Ent,” “halfling,” and “worm” (meaning “dragon”). Readers discover that a word such as “mathom” (anything a hobbit had no immediate use for, but was unwilling to throw away) was actually common in Old English, but that “Mithril,” on the other hand, is a complete invention (and the first “Elven” word to have an entry in the OED). And fans of Harry Potter will be surprised to find that “Dumbledore” (the name of Hogwart’s headmaster) was a word used by Tolkien and many others (it is a dialect word meaning “bumblebee”).

Update. It turns out this was not a review copy but a gift — thanks, Paul!


  1. The third book is excellent. Despite his invented languages, Tolkien invented very few English words for The Lord of the Rings. When we exclude proper names and Elvish, Dwarvish, and Orkish quotations, I find only eleventy-one, errandless, evermind, gentlehobbit, haywards, hobbit, rightabouts, smials, starmoon, truesilver, tweens, warg, plus the four Sindarin (Grey-elven) borrowings crebain, ithildin, miruvor, mithril.

  2. JC, ‘mathom’ reminded me of ‘fathom’, then I thought of ‘flotsam’ and ‘jetsam’, which in my faulty memory was ‘jetsom’. Does this final ‘m’ have a linked origin, and are the ‘a’ and ‘o’ variants?

  3. And did mathom have the same meaning for Anglo-Saxons as for hobbits, mutatis mutandis?

  4. I was shocked to discover, as an adult, that “wilderland” was not a standard English word.

  5. Tolkien’s warg looks to be derived from Old Engliah wearg “evil creature” and Icelandic vargr “wolf”.

    Mathom comes from Old English maþum ” treasure, gift” – a very serious word, with no humorous connotation.

  6. And the Smials are OE smyġelas ‘burrows’.

  7. Well, his Elvish words aren’t invented out of nowhere either.

  8. At Strong Language I shared an excerpt from Metcalf’s book, on how fuck went mainstream in the latter half of the 20thC. He believes it’s possible “to pinpoint the flap of the butterfly wings that rippled out to cause such a storm of change”, and duly supplies a location, date, and context.

  9. R v Penguin Books Ltd (1960) is worth mentioning in this context.

  10. rightabouts is surely the plural of “rightabout” which just means a smart 180 degree turn to the right as in the military command “Right about turn”. The context is “we’ll send this Rider to the rightabouts!” as in “tell him where to go, get rid of him”. “Give someone the rightabout” is to tell them to get lost. It definitely predates Tolkien: “Ah, but it is so, or else people would be sent to the rightabout at the second sentence” – Joseph Conrad, in “Chance”.

  11. Alon Lischinsky says

    @John Cowan: errandless is easily antedated.

  12. Alon’s link is to Alexander Ross’s Helenore, or, the Fortunate Shepherdess (Aberdeen 1804).

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