We all know J.R.R. Tolkien wrote about hobbits in the Lord of the Rings series of books. Hobbits are similar to humans, but they are short and have hairy feet. Bilbo Baggins, Samwise Gamgee, and Frodo Baggins are the most-well known hobbit examples. In J.R.R. Tolkien’s fiction, they’re the peaceful folk who reside in Middle Earth.
But, where did hobbit come from?
As you may have guessed, hobbits are a fictional race born in Tolkien’s imagination. He even created an etymology for the word; hobbit derives from the word Holbytla, which means “hole-dweller” in Old English.
Tolkien invented three groups of hobbits. The Harfoots were the smallest of all the hobbits and also the first to enter Eriador, a large region of Middle Earth. The Fallohides are the least numerous of the Hobbits and tall and fair. The Stoors were the last to enter Eriador. They stand out as being the only hobbits that are willing to swim; the slimy creature Gollum was a Stoor.
Did Tolkien make up the word?
Now here’s a fascinating and slightly spooky detail. There are no references to hobbits before Tolkien’s publication, except for one. In 1895, the folklorist Michael Aislabie Denham published a long list of supernatural creatures. Here’s an excerpt: “. . . nixies, Jinny-burnt-tails, dudmen, hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants, hobbits . . .”
While Tolkien was a masterful adapter of mythology and folklore, there isn’t the slightest suggestion that he was aware of this list.
Fun fact: Tolkien’s interest in language predates his career as a professional writer. After World War I, the Oxford English Dictionary was Tolkien’s first employer. His job at the dictionary involved working on the history and etymology of Germanic words that begin with W.