Explanation of the word hobbit

Roman Rausch

first presented: Omentielva Lempea, Aug. 10th 2013, Helsinki, Finland
published online: Aug. 14th 2019

[...] and there in rows stood great jars and vessels filled with a wealth that could not be guessed.
The Hobbit, chapter XII: Inside Information



Preliminary Note

This work was first published in Arda Philology 5 (2015). The given online version slightly differs from the original, as new entries have been added to the kup/korb lists in chapter 4 (and a few have been added to the Elvish list in chapter 5), so that the statistics are updated as well. The lists can also be accessed independenly at http://sindanoorie.net/kup/kup.html with a convenient search function. I am still extending them and appreciate any additional input.

1  Introduction

The story of how the word hobbit came about is well-known: While correcting examination papers, Tolkien came across a blank page and spontaneously wrote on it “In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit”. In the introduction to The History of the Hobbit, its author John Rateliff cites various accounts of this event and presents evidence pointing to the summer of 1930 as the date of creation.

Already at the publication of The Hobbit, several speculations arose about a possible ‘explanation’ of this word, attempts to find out what Tolkien might have been influenced by when he invented it. They are discussed in detail in the History of the Hobbit. Since they have nothing in common with the one I have to offer, I just give a quick summary for the sake of completeness:

Now of course, hobbit does not need an ‘explanation’ any more than any of the numerous other words Tolkien has created, we are dealing with a language-inventor after all. But it turns out that it just might have one, in the sense that the word was not created completely arbitrarily. My approach will be a sound-symbolic rather than a philological one, in a similar vein to what has been done before by Stan McDaniel [3]. I was not aware of his work until I was finished with mine, so it would seem that we came to similar conclusions independently.

2  An entangled container

In 1926, a paper was published by the French linguist Marcel Cohen with the title “Sur un nom d’un contenant à entrelacs dans le monde Méditerrannéen” (‘About a name of a wickerwork container in the Mediterranean world’) [1]. According to his own account, he was looking through Dillmann’s Ethiopian dictionary where he stumbled upon the Ge’ez word karabo translated by the similar-sounding Latin corbis ‘basket’ and had the idea that this similarity might not be an accident. Investigating further, he found a huge amount of words denoting a container – often specifically a woven basket, other times a vessel of some other kind – in many languages across the Mediterranean, conforming to the same shape:

  1. initially, a labial sound, mostly a voiceless /k/ (in Semitic, also uvular /q/), rarely voiced /g/
  2. medially, a vowel which Cohen does not specify, but which is mostly [a] according to his data, more rarely /o/ or /u/
  3. finally, a labial sound, mostly /b/, /p/ or /f/
  4. optionally, a liquid /r/ or /l/ somewhere within a word, more rarely an /s/, /n/ or /t/

The variant without a liquid is represented by the Latin word cuppa ‘cup’, the variant with a liquid by Latin corbis ‘basket’. To be able to refer to this shape, I therefore call the former variant kup, the latter korb.

Cohen’s theory is that a word of this shape has been acting as a mot-bouchon (literally a ‘floater-word’; in English the German term Wanderwort is normally used), i.e. it has been roaming the Mediterranean region, being loaned back and forth across multiple languages. He speculates that it might hail from a pre-Indo-European language from the region, with the original sense of ‘wicker’, ‘reed’, ‘stipa’ or any other material originally used in the weaving of baskets. From ‘basket’ semantic shifts lead to more general ‘vessel’, ‘cage’ and the like, as well as words denoting a particular measure of volume.

Cohen’s collection of words is of an impressive size. It has to be large in order to exclude the possibility of random similarities. In order to judge that and appreciate the scope of the prevalence of this fascinating shape, I give most of Cohen’s data below. I have excluded only a few words, some that have to do with weaving only (and no vessels, the reasons will become clear later) and some which I could not corroborate:

1 Akk. kapru(m) cup; table (for eating)
2 Akk. karpu(m), karpatu(m) jar, vessel (which may be of a fragile material)
3 Akk. quppu(m) chest, box, cage
4 Amh. gabar pan for frying pancakes
5 Amh. gabatā 1. wooden plate or tablet 2. wicker table
6 Amh. gabatā measure of grain
7 Amh. gub a kind of woven disc
8 Amh. karabo, kabaro drum
9 Amh. qafo beehive
10 Ar. garafa to scoop with a hollow utensil
11 Ar. gārəb a kind of ship with rudders
12 Ar. ǧarīb measure of grain for sowing
13 Ar. girāf vessel, measure
14 Ar. gurfa hollow of the hand full of water; measure of grain
15 Ar. guruf small cup
16 Ar. kabar drum
17 Ar. kabl foot shackles
18 Ar. kalb a red stripe which one sews between two strips of hide, making up a purse
19 Ar. kfra bowl out of a netted fabric from date trees
20 Ar. kibl foot shackles
21 Ar. kiwāra beehive
22 Ar. kūb big cup, bowl
23 Ar. kurufa, qurufa straw hat
24 Ar. kuwāra, kuwwāra beehive
25 Ar. kwāfri chest-maker
26 Ar. qafʿa a type of round basket without handles out of palm leaves
27 Ar. qafaṣ 1. cage 2. shovel for wheat 3. a type of basket 4. stall 5. grid 6. measure of capacity
28 Ar. qaffūra big basket
29 Ar. qafir beehive, tray for keeping dates in
30 Ar. qafiz measure of dry things, measure in surveying
31 Ar. qafūr sheath of the palm tree blossoms
32 Ar. qalīf basket for the transport of dates
33 Ar. qārəb a kind of ship with rudders
34 Ar. qirba goatskin flask
35 Ar. quffa bag of palm leaves
36 Aram. kawęręt beehive
37 Aram. kɘbʰȧsa 1. cluster of grapes 2. testicles
38 Aram. kūbbȧsa 1. cluster of grapes 2. testicles
39 Aram. kubʰa tub
40 Aram. qapʰsa bottle, cage, basket
41 Aram. qəbōṭīn box, chest
42 Aram. qībōta box, chest
43 Aram. qubbəta water reservoir; tent
44 Basque copalet pouch with water (for a whetstone)
45 Basque gopor bowl
46 Basque kupel tub
47 Basque khoban beehive
48 Basque khopor cup
49 Basque kofoi(n), kofan beehive
50 Basque kopa pouch with water (for a whetstone)
51 Basque kopor bowl, basin
52 Basque kupel tub
53 Beja guffa, gūfa cup
54 Beja gŭraf drinking glass
55 Beja kabūr drum
56 Beja kafas closed basket, cage
57 Beja kŭrāfa drinking glass
58 Berber (a)gərrabu a kind of ship
59 Berber akäfu basket out of paper
60 Berber akufi jar for cereal
61 Berber t-guff-ət big carrycot out of halfah grass
62 Berber þaqᵊfif-þ big carrycot out of halfah grass
63 Bagrimi al-āgawa straw hat
64 Bagrimi al-gapa big sieve
65 Bulg. кораб ship
66 Bilen kalambura drum
67 Bilen qaffo big vessel out of palm tree, used for storage
68 Chamir kirbra drum
69 Chamir qefa elongated basket, beehive
70 OCS koliba hut, cabin
71 Cop. kabi jar, measure
72 Cop. kebi jar, measure
73 M.Egy. kb jar, measure
74 M.Egy. qby jar, measure
75 Fr. cabane hut, cabin
76 Fr. cabas woven bag for groceries
77 Fr. cabine booth, cubicle
78 Fr. carabe withy boat covered in hides; a kind of litter; caravel
79 Fr. carafe carafe
80 Fr. coffin 1. small basket, basket for fruit 2. pouch with water (for a whetstone) 3. coffin
81 Fr. coffre chest
82 Fr. corvette corvette (small warship)
83 Fr. couffe a type of basket
84 Fr. gobelet goblet
85 Fula gafakke woven feedbag (for horses)
86 Ger. Koben shed, sty
87 Ger. Korb basket
88 Geez gabatā plate, frying pan
89 Geez gərāb goatskin flask, amphora (?)
90 Geez kabalo handle, ring
91 Geez kafar chest, basket
92 Geez karabo basket
93 Geez qafo chest, basket, cage, beehive
94 Geez qirāb case, sheath
95 Ir. corb coach
96 Gr. κάβος measure of wheat
97 Gr. κάλπη pitcher, vessel for drinking; cinerary urn
98 Gr. κάλπις pitcher, vessel for drinking; cinerary urn
99 Gr. καλύβη hut, cabin
100 Gr. καπᾱνη 1. manger (crib for the food of cattle) 2. chariot, basket of a chariot
101 Gr. κάπη manger (crib for the food of cattle)
102 Gr. καράβιον vessel, ship
103 Gr. κάραβος big ship
104 Gr. κίβισις pouch, wallet
105 Gr. κιβωτός, κιβώτιον box, chest, bottle
106 Gr. κλωβóς birdcage
107 Gr. κόφινος basket; measure of volume
108 Gr. κύμβη 1. vessel, cup, bowl 2. small boat
109 Gr. κύμβος cup
110 Gr. κύπη hole
111 Gr. κύπελλον big-bellied drinking vessel, beaker, goblet, cup
112 Gr. κύπελλον vessel for drinking, for milking
113 Gr. κύπρος measure of capacity for cereal
114 Gr. κυψέλη box, chest; cell; hollow of the ear
115 Gr. κύμβαλον cymbal
116 Hausa gafakka leather bag
117 Hausa gurunfa straw hat
118 A.Heb. gȧrȧpʰ vessel
119 A.Heb. g-pʰ-l vessel for drinking
120 A.Heb. kbsa pouch, bag, wallet
121 A.Heb. kəbʰȧra sieve
122 A.Heb. kəlūbʰ, kəlībʰa basket for grapes
123 A.Heb. kilubi nest
124 A.Heb. kōmer pile of fruits made overripe
125 A.Heb. qūpʰa tub
126 A.Heb. quppa vessel, basket
127 Heb. kębʰęl foot shackles
128 Heb. kəlūbʰ basket, cage
129 Heb. kəpʰōr metal cup
130 Heb. kpʰipʰa basket out of palm leaves
131 Heb. qab measure of capacity for non-liquids
132 It. cófano chest
133 It. coffa crow’s nest (on a ship’s mast), little basket
134 Kabyle þaḫabiþ jar
135 Kafa kambo drum
136 Kunama kubula drum
137 Lat. calpar vessel for wine
138 Lat. capanna hut, cabin
139 Lat. capis, capedo bowl with a handle
140 Lat. capsa vessel, chest
141 Lat. capsula small bottle
142 Lat. capsus wagon-body, cage for large animals
143 Lat. capula bowl with a handle
144 Lat. capulus coffin
145 Lat. carabus coracle
146 Lat. cavea cage, fence, beehive
147 Lat. copa small boat
148 Lat. copelletus small cup
149 Lat. copellus measure of volume
150 Lat. cophinus basket
151 Lat. coppana small boat
152 Lat. coppanus measure of grain
153 Lat. corbis basket
154 Lat. corbīta transport vessel
155 Lat. cumera, cumerus basket out of rush; clay vessel to store grain
156 Lat. cūpa cask, tub, barrel
157 Lat. cuppa cup
158 Lat. gabata a kind of dish, plate
159 Mac. kanavaza vessel
160 Mandinka gabā woven straw hat
161 Mandinka gafa woven feedbag (for horses)
162 N.Aram. kūlb jar
163 Oromo gūbo woven vessel
164 Oromo hubo pot
165 O.Turk. kövrūg big trunk
166 Pers. kawār basket
167 Pers. kuwār(a) basket
168 Pers. qafes cage, palanquin
169 Pers. qar(r)āba bottle, vessel out of glass
170 Pol. korab basket
171 Prov. coufo a type of basket
172 Rif. aq(ə)bbuz chest for cereal
173 Rif. aqrab bag woven out of palm tree sprouts
174 Rif. þ-aqrab-þ crib
175 Rom. coliba hut, cabin
176 Rus. корабль ship
177 Sans. kapāla cup, jar, dish
178 Sans. kapāla skull, cranium, skull-bone
179 Sans. karparas cup, shard
180 Sans. karparas skull
181 Saho-Afar kabaro little drum
182 Somali gorof woven vessel
183 Songhay gafa woven feedbag (for horses)
184 Sp. cafiz, cahiz measure of capacity defined by the grain load on a mule with which one can inseminate an area
185 Sp. cuévano 1. large basket for grapes 2. beehive
186 Saho kabalō travel bag
187 Saho qafo large vessel out of palm tree, used for storage; beehive
188 Saho qōb waterproof basket
189 Syriac kabʰla shackles
190 Syriac kȧpʰarta drinking vessel made out of woven and tarred palm leaves
191 Syriac kulbȧša basket for grapes
192 Syriac qarbīn ship
193 Tigrinya gabatā measure of grain
194 Tigrinya gabbarā very large vessel made of a tree trunk; trough to make pastry
195 Tigrinya kafar woven withy basket
196 Tigrinya käläbo pot
197 Tigrinya kāribbo goatskin flask stitched into a form of a bottle
198 Tigrinya qʷafo chest, basket, cage, beehive
199 Tuareg ăgrəbbən small spherical vessel for butter made out of leather
200 Tuareg akabar mortar without legs
201 Tuareg takəbat very small can with a lid
202 Turk. kabrān measure of volume
203 Turk. küp jar
204 Turk. qāliba hut, cabin
205 Turk. qavanoz vessel
206 Turk. qobur holster, case
207 Turk. qova bucket
208 Turk. qub case, envelope

Having brought Cohen’s data in digital form, it is possible to generate some statistics about sound distributions. To simplify things across different phonologies, I put similar sounds in groups: For the first consonant, all voiceless stops are represented by K, voiced by G and voiceless fricatives by H. For the vowel, I use the obvious notation A, E, I, O, U for the five common vowels, Y for [y] and empty curly brackets in the case of a schwa, an unknown vowel (as in Middle Egyptian) or no vowel at all. For the second consonant, the possibilities are P, B, F, V, M and MP/MB for a nasalized cluster. This gives the following distribution (values below 3% are suppressed):

If the words chosen have no correlation with their phonetic shape at all, one would expect the sound frequencies to follow their respective distributions among the languages. For example, the first sound was restricted to a velar, but no further, so that the above values would match how common K is compared to G or H. And indeed, the relative commonness of F as the second consonant, for example, seems to be related to a bias of the data towards Semitic and its commonness in Arabic (where [p] > [f]). If there is a correlation, one should see a deviation. However, this is obviously difficult to show in practice, since the rank-frequencies for the given languages are unknown. Still, one notices that the vowels E and I appear rather rarely, clearly way below their typical rank-frequencies across languages. I shall come to this point further below.

3  Cob and sound symbolism

If one looks further still, Cohen’s theory cannot be the whole story, as argued by Anatoly Liberman in a 2010 paper titled “Iconicity and etymology”. As an illustrative example, he considers the English word cob which is attested in the following meanings in the Oxford English Dictionary [18], with the year of first attestation:

The word apparently shows quite a bit of semantic spread, but the meanings seem to be centered around the ideas of ‘lump, small roundish piece’, ‘head, bulb, clove’, ‘stoutness’ (by extension ‘stout man, leader’) and ‘a kind of animal’. Such a semantic spread, along with its late (i.e., long past the Proto-Indo-European stage) appearance strongly suggests one thing: The English word ‘cob’ is sound-symbolic, and as such, it has simply been reinvented rather than taken as a loan or continued from the ancestor language.

And it is far from being alone, consider for example the following attested meanings of the Hungarian word gamó [7]:

Here, the meanings could be grouped under ‘swelling’ or ‘crookedness’, the common denominator with cob being an idea of curvature or convexity.

A joining of the two semantic fields of ‘vessel’ and ‘convex shape’ is soon found by noticing that German Kolben ‘club, the thick end of a club’ underwent a change to ‘flask’ (which can be considered club-shaped), or that Ancient Greek κύμβη on the one hand appears with the meaning ‘hollow of a vessel, drinking cup, bowl; boat’, but also as ‘head’ and ‘knapsack, wallet’. The latter, in particular, can be considered both as a kind of container and as a kind of lump at the same time.

Words with this idea also appear far from the Mediterranean region, as e.g. Korean kopta ‘be winding’, kwupta ‘be bent’ or Japanese kobu ‘bump, lump, protuberance, swelling’. This does not neglect the cross-loaning in the Mediterranean region discussed by Cohen, of course, but some instances should be perhaps rethought, especially when they do no not match up as etymologists would like them to. Liberman mentions Sanskrit kapalam ‘cup, skull’ and Greek κύβος ‘cube’ which are thought of as cognates despite the mismatch of a voiceless and voiced sound. A similar mismatch is found in Greek χαμός beside χαβός ‘curved’ or Latin globus and glomus ‘globe, ball-shaped mass’.

A common pattern with such words that I have observed in etymological dictionaries, is then that the frustrated etymologist will either give up, tentatively suggest a Wanderwort, a loan, or propose some kind of substate effect. However, at one point the German etymologist Friedrich Kluge admits to a sound-symbolic origin when discussing the etymology of Kropf, writing “apparently a sound-symbolic formation with a phonetic shape common to such meanings” [14] (my translation).

Another way to cope with the difficulties has often been to cut up the words even further, for instance postulating Proto-Indo-European *keu- ‘bend, curve’ with possible extensions *keu-p- or *keu-b-. It appears highly doubtful, however, that languages really work in this way – clearly, English cob was not created by extension of a root *ko-. But while the exact consonant is a big deal for etymology, it is much less so for sound symbolism. Its simpler form is onomatopoeia where beep is just a louder peep and a lot of leeway is natural.

4  A semantic map of kup and korb

Having become slightly obsessed with the matter, I set out to find as many kup/korb shapes as possible which would confirm to the above ideas. To classify them, I devised the following semantic subdivisons:

Since Cohen was focused on vessel-words, simply mixing my list into his would create a bias towards vessel. Therefore, I keep all the words in my list distinct from Cohen’s, unless there are reasons to repeat them – like words appearing here in different semantic fields.

Apart from the glosses and their translations, I also list the semantic field I counted them in, as well as their origin, if such was suggested in an etymological dictionary. The sources are given in the last column. I do not provide sources for words from common languages which can be looked up easily in a number of dictionaries.

 lang.glosstranslationsem.orig. ref.
1 Akk. gamlu bent stick (as projectile), throwing stick hook [8]
2 Akk. kamkammatu 1. metal ring ring [8]
3 Akk. kamkammatu 2. round moon, full moon lump [8]
4 Akk. kapālu(m) to roll up, wind up, intertwine each other (of snakes, birds etc.) bending [8]
5 Akk. kapāpu to curve, bow bending [8]
6 Akk. kapāṣu to bend back, distort (of part of body, snake, horn of moon, part of liver) bending [8]
7 Akk. kappultum wrapping (as purpose of textile) bending [8]
8 Akk. karmu(m) heap, mound lump [8]
9 Akk. kiplu twisting, twine bending [8]
10 Akk. kippatu(m) circle, hoop, ring ring [8]
11 Akk. kippatu(m) tendril, twining stem of vine bending [8]
12 Akk. kippatu(m) handle, grip of vessel, musical instrument hook [8]
13 Akk. kippu(m) loop, trap ring [8]
14 Akk. kirbānu lump (of earth) lump [20]
15 Akk. kuppu cistern, water source vessel [8]
16 Akk. kuppupu(m) very bent bending [8]
17 Akk. kupputtu measuring vessel vessel [8]
18 Akk. kupputu conglomerated (of parts of liver) lump [8]
19 Akk. qablu(m) 1. hips, waist 2. belt, girdle ring [8]
20 Akk. qabru(m) grave, tomb cavity [8]
21 Akk. qabūtu bowl vessel [8]
22 Akk. qebēru(m) 1. bury 2. wrap up (as though for burial) 3. be rolled up, convoluted (?) bending [8]
23 OE crump, crumb crooked bending [13]
24 Ar. ġarrāfa noria (wheel-like machine for lifting water) ring
25 Ar. qubba dome dome
26 Av. kamarā girdle, belt ring [12]
27 Chag. koburčak box vessel [24]
28 Chag. kopur vessel vessel [24]
29 Welsh copa top, summit, head head
30 Welsh cwm valley cavity
31 Dutch klamp heap lump [13]
32 Dutch klamp clamp hook O.Dut. *clampe [13]
33 Dutch koper trading vessel vessel [13]
34 Eng. calf calf, young of a cow, etc. cub PIE *gʷelbʰ-/*gʷolbʰ- [13]
35 Eng. clamp heap lump [13]
36 Eng. clamp clamp, device for fastening hook O.Dut. *clampe [13]
37 Eng. cob round object, stone of a fruit, testicle, roundish heap, lump, haystack, knot of hair, lump of coal, dumpling lump [18]
38 Eng. cob head of a herring, seeding head of wheat, clover etc. head [18]
39 Eng. cob great man, big man, leading man, wealthy man, miser, huge, lumpish person swelling [18]
40 Eng. cobble cobble, rounded stone lump Eng. cob [13]
41 Eng. coble a kind of fishing boat vessel Lat. caupulus [13]
42 Eng. coif cap, headdress headgear O.Fr. coiffe [13]
43 Eng. coop basket vessel Lat. cūpa [13]
44 Eng. cramp bent piece of iron bending M.Du. crampe, cramp [13]
45 Eng. creep move the body near or along the ground as a reptile or insect doe bending
46 Eng. crib 1. bed for a baby 2. box with food for farm animals vessel
47 Eng. crimp to wrinkle bending
48 Eng. cripple lame or partly disabled person or animal; original sense ’bent, twisted’ bending [13]
49 Eng. crumple to curl up, become wrinkled or bent bending OE crump, crumb [13]
50 Eng. cub the young of the fox, bear, lion, tiger etc. cub ON kobbi [13]
51 Eng. gaff fishing hook hook M.Fr. gaffe [13]
52 Eng. gob lump of slimy substance lump O.Fr. gobe [13]
53 Eng. gobbet piece of flesh, lump of food (archaic) lump O.Fr. gobet [13]
54 Eng. grave grave, tomb cavity PIE *grebʰ-/*grobʰ- [13]
55 Eng. groove furrow, trench, channel cavity PIE *grebʰ-/*grobʰ- [13]
56 Eng. hamper large basket vessel O.Fr. hanapier [13]
57 Eng. hanaper case for holding documents vessel O.Fr. hanapier [13]
58 Eng. heap large, disordered pile of things lump PIE *keu-p- [13]
59 Eng. hive nest for bees lump
60 Eng. hoop circular band ring
61 ME cawell fish basket vessel [16]
62 Est. kolp skull head
63 Est. kübar hat headgear
64 Fin. huppu hoof, cowl headgear
65 Fin. kaivaa to dig, excavate cavity
66 Fin. kimpale slab, chunk, clod, lump, large irregular piece lump
67 Fin. klimppi gob, clump, clot lump
68 Fin. kuhmu knot, swelling swelling
69 Fin. kumara bent, bowed bending
70 Fin. kuoppa hole, pit cavity
71 Fin. kyhmy swelling, protuberance swelling
72 Fin. kypärä helmet headgear
73 Fr. coiffe headdress, cap headgear Lat. cofia (cofea) [13]
74 Fr. couffe carrycot vessel
75 Fr. couffin carrycot vessel
76 Fr. coupe cup vessel Lat. cuppa
77 Fr. courber to bend bending
78 Fr. cuve vat vessel Lat. cūpa
79 Fr. gobe fattening ball (for poultry), poisoned ball (for a dog) lump O.Fr. gobe [13]
80 M.Fr. gaffe long pole with an attached fishhook hook [10]
81 O.Fr. gobe mouthful, lump lump [13]
82 O.Fr. hanap goblet vessel Frank. *hnap [13]
83 O.Fr. hanapier basket for holding a goblet vessel O.Fr. hanap [13]
84 Geo. gaberili swollen swelling
85 Geo. gumbati dome dome
86 Geo. kamari girdle, belt ring
87 Geo. khbo calf cub
88 Ger. Graben ditch cavity PIE *gʰrebʰ- [14]
89 Ger. Haupt head (arch.) head PIE *kapwet-/kaput- [14, 23]
90 Ger. Hüfte hip bending PIE *keu- [14]
91 Ger. Humpen tankard vessel
92 Ger. Kalb calf cub PIE *gʷelbʰ-/*gʷolbʰ- [13]
93 Ger. Kerbe dent, groove cavity
94 Ger. Kiepe dosser, pannier (high basket carried on the back) vessel
95 Ger. Kiepe straw hat, hood headgear
96 Ger. Knospe bud swelling
97 Ger. Knubbe bud, bulge, swelling swelling
98 Ger. Kolben various club-like or cylindric objects: corncob, spadix, butt of a rifle, club or mace proper; piston lump
99 Ger. Kolben laboratory flask vessel
100 Ger. Kopf head head Lat. cuppa [14]
101 Ger. Korb basket vessel Lat. corbis [14]
102 Ger. Kropf crop, craw (outwards expanded portion of the alimentary tract in birds) swelling P.Germ. *kruppa- [14]
103 Ger. krumm crooked bending
104 Ger. Kübel tub, bucket vessel Lat. cūpella [14]
105 Ger. Kufe vat, tub (especially for transporting salt) vessel Lat. cūpa [14]
106 Ger. Kuppel dome dome It. cupola [14]
107 Ger. Kürbe dosser, pannier (high basket carried on the back) (Bavarian dialect) vessel
108 Ir. cabhuil conical basket for catching fish vessel ME cawell [16]
109 OHG kramph bent, crooked bending [14]
110 Gr. γλάφῠ hollow, cavern cavity [15]
111 Gr. κάλυμμα grave cavity [15]
112 Gr. κάλυμμα head-covering, hood, veil, covering put on the face of the dead headgear [15]
113 Gr. καμάρα anything with an arched cover: covered carriage; covered boat or barge; vaulted chamber; burial chamber; vault of heaven; vaulted ceiling dome [15]
114 Gr. κάμπτω 1. to bend, curve 2. to turn or guide a horse or chariot round the turning-post 3. to be bowed down bending [15]
115 Gr. κελεβή cup, jar, pan vessel [15]
116 Gr. κεφαλή head head PIE *gʰebʰ(e)l- [15, 12]
117 Gr. χαβός curved bending [23]
118 Gr. χαμός curved bending [23]
119 Gr. κλίμα inclination, slope bending [15]
120 Gr. κυβιστάω tumble head foremost rotation [15]
121 Gr. κύβος 1. cubical die, 2. vertebra, 3. block of stone, 4. piece of salt fish, 5. kind of cubic cake, 6. hollow above the hips of cattle, 7. part of an irrigation-machine hook [15]
122 Gr. κύφελλα hollows of the ears cavity [15]
123 Gr. κύφελλα clouds of mist, arrows lump [15]
124 Gr. κῦμα anything swollen (as if pregnant): the swell of the sea, a wave, billow; the foetus in the womb, embryo etc. swelling [15]
125 Gr. κύμβη 1. hollow of a vessel, drinking cup, bowl 2. boat 3. knapsack, wallet vessel [15]
126 Gr. κύμβη head head [15]
127 Gr. κύπη 1. a kind of ship 2. a kind of hut vessel [15]
128 Gr. κύπη gap, hole cavity [23]
129 Heb. kipá kippah, traditional Jewish hat headgear
130 Heb. kipá dome (liteal meaning of kippah) dome
131 Hindi khopri skull head Sans. kharpara [13]
132 Hun. gamó hook, crook, branches hook [7]
133 Hun. gamó 1. having windgalls (swellings on the joints of horses) (1802), 2. big, unshapely foot (1885) swelling [7]
134 Hun. himpók windgall (swelling on the joints of a horse) swelling
135 Hun. kalap hat headgear
136 Hun. kampó hook hook
137 Hun. koporsó coffin vessel Chag. koburčak [24]
138 It. caraffa decanter, carafe vessel Sp. garaffa [14]
139 It. cupola dome dome Lat. cūpula (cuppula) [14]
140 It. gabbia basket for fowls, coop vessel
141 Jap. kaban bag, basket, briefcase vessel
142 Jap. kabuto helmet, headpiece headgear
143 Jap. kobu bump, lump lump
144 Jap. kobu protuberance, swelling swelling
145 Jap. kubi neck, head head
146 Jap. kubomi hollow, cavity, dent, depression cavity
147 Jap. kurumu wrap up bending
148 Kor. kopta be winding bending [22]
149 Kor. kwupta be bent bending [22]
150 Lat. calvāria skull head PIE *klHe-/klHou̯o- [23]
151 Lat. camurus curved or arched inwards; having such horns bending [19]
152 Lat. cappa cape, hooded cloak headgear [14]
153 Lat. caput head head PIE *kap-ut- [23]
154 Lat. caupulus a kind of small ship vessel [13]
155 Lat. caverna cave, hole cavity Lat. cavus
156 Lat. cavus hollow, excavated, concave, deep (of water) cavity PIE *ḱouH-ó- [23]
157 Lat. cerebrum brain, skull vessel
158 Lat. cofia (cofea) cap headgear [13]
159 Lat. cubitus elbow, forearm bending [23]
160 Lat. cumulus heap, pile lump PIE *ḱuh1-mo- [23]
161 Lat. cūpella small vat or cask vessel Lat. cūpa
162 Lat. cuphia cap headgear [13]
163 Lat. cūpula (cuppula) small, crooked handle hook Lat. cūpa (cuppa)
164 Lat. cūpula (cuppula) little tub, cask vessel Lat. cūpa (cuppa)
165 Lat. cūpula (cuppula) small burying vault dome Lat. cūpa (cuppa)
166 Lat. curvus bent, crooked, curved bending PIE *kuru̯o-? [23]
167 Lat. gibbus hump, hunchbacked swelling PIE *geibʰ-? [23]
168 Lat. glēba (glaeba) lump of earth, clod lump PIE *gleb(ʰ)-? *glob(ʰ)-? [23]
169 Lat. globus round body, round sphere, globe ring
170 Lat. glomus ball-shaped mass lump PIE *glem-o/es- [13, 23]
171 Lat. grūmus heap of earth, hillock lump PIE *h2ǵr-ōm-o- [23]
172 Lat. hāmus hook, fish-hook hook [23]
173 Lith. kupra hump swelling
174 Mal. koppara coconut lump Hindi khopri [13]
175 M.Du. crampe, cramp bent piece of iron bending [13]
176 Nivkh qob ladle vessel [21]
177 ON kobbi young seal cub [25]
178 O.Jap. kabu head head [11]
179 Pers. gonbad dome, vault, arch dome
180 Pers. kamar waist, loins ring [13]
181 Pol. klomb flowerbed lump Eng. clump [24]
182 Quechua kump’u crooked, hunchbacked swelling
183 Quechua q’iwi arc, bow, curve; crooked, curved bending
184 Rus. глыба big lump lump
185 Rus. голова head head
186 Rus. кабушка (кабушек) small lump (especially of curd or cheese) lump [9]
187 Rus. кап burl (deformed growth on a tree) swelling
188 Rus. карапуз pudgy, chubby child swelling
189 Rus. каравай large round bread; round cake; boulder, roundish underwater stone lump [9]
190 Rus. карман pocket vessel
191 Rus. клуб puff, roundish formation of smoke, dust, mist lump
192 Rus. клубень tuber lump
193 Rus. коба (кова) stump, snag; pile for fastening boats; hummock lump [9]
194 Rus. кобениться to bend, writhe, squirm, wriggle bending
195 Rus. кобеняк 1. bag, pouch 2. awkward, clumsy person lump [9]
196 Rus. кобло pit cavity [9]
197 Rus. колоб ball, round bread lump
198 Rus. колпак high-crowned cap, cowl headgear Turk. kalpak [24]
199 Rus. колыбель crib vessel
200 Rus. ком lump, ball lump
201 Rus. копать to dig cavity
202 Rus. копна haycock; something having the shape of a haycock (in particular a tuft of hair) lump
203 Rus. короб basket, box vessel
204 Rus. коробья 1. basket, chest, box 2. measure of grain vessel
205 Rus. ковалок chunk, slice (esp. of meat) lump [9]
206 Rus. ковчег 1. box, vessel 2. Ark of the Covenant, Noah’s Ark vessel [24]
207 Rus. коверкать to bend, distort bending
208 Rus. ковш ladle vessel
209 Rus. куб vat vessel
210 Rus. кубарь spinning top rotation
211 Rus. кубель vat vessel [9]
212 Rus. кубель 1. wooden toy sphere 2. wallet, knapsack out of birch bark lump [9]
213 Rus. кубиться to gather into a pile, lump, crowd lump [9]
214 Rus. кубок cup, goblet, bowl vessel Rus. куб [24]
215 Rus. кувшин jug vessel
216 Rus. кувырок somersault, roll, tumble rotation
217 Sans. kapāla skull, cranium, skull-bone head [17]
218 Sans. kapāla cup, jar, dish vessel [17]
219 Sans. kharpara 1. thief, rogue, cheat 2. skull 3. a beggar’s bowl or dish, 4. umbrella or parasol 5. a kind of mineral substance head [17]
220 Sans. kumbhá jar, pitcher, water-pot, ewer, small water-jar vessel [15, 17]
221 Sans. kumbhá the frontal globe or prominence on the upper part of the forehead of an elephant swelling [17]
222 Sp. garrafa decanter, carafe vessel Ar. ġarrāfa [14]
223 Sum. gabil 1. basket 2. main beam of a chariot vessel [20]
224 Sum. gam shepherd’s crook, bent stick; haft, hilt hook [20]
225 Sum. gurum to bend, curve, wrap around; to bow; to roll up; to curb, restrain; to watch over bending [20]
226 Sum. gurum pile lump [20]
227 Sum. kibid backside, ass swelling [20]
228 Tamil kappal ship vessel
229 Turk. kabar to swell swelling
230 Turk. kalpak high-crowned cap headgear
231 Ukr. каблук curve, bend of a road bending [24]

I should note that this list can only serve as a list of candidates. In no way do I claim that all of the words have been formed sound-symbolically (many are in fact attested loans). The latter is of course a thing which is almost impossible to prove most of the time. A sufficiently long list is, however, a first prerequisite to demonstrate that the correlation between kup/korb and convexity is not a coincidence that just works with any sound-shape and any meaning.

To round things up, one can show how the various fields interact using the semantic map technique. For this specific case one could do it in the following way: Filtering out all words which are attested in different fields, one can put them on a graph and draw a line between two vertices whenever a semantic field is shared. This leads to the following picture:

We can see that vessel, lump and hook have the most connections, with the other areas being connected peripherally.

It is interesting to note at this point that in a letter discussing the pitfalls of historical semantics, Tolkien mentions Latin corbis as the formal equivalent of English harp (that is, they look like cognates). He goes on to say that “the poor philologist will have to call on some archaeological expert before he can decide whether any relationship between ‘harps’ and ‘baskets’ is possible – supposing Gmc. harpō always meant ‘harp’ or corbi-s always meant ‘wicker basket’! corbīta means a fat-bellied ship” (Let#209). Klein explains harp as literally meaning ‘an instrument plucked with crooked fingers’ [13], comparing ON herpask ‘to contract (one’s fingers)’ and Russian коробить ‘to bend, warp’.

5  kup and korb in Tolkien’s languages

We can now finally turn to Tolkien’s languages and apply the same procedure, looking for words satisfying the kup/korb phonetic shape while also belonging in the outlined semantic categories. The following, still quite sizeable set can be found:

1 G. cam bent, bowed; submissive, humble KAVA- bending GL:25
2 G. cam(m)a- to stoop, bend, bow, cower KAVA- bending GL:25
3 G. caug humpback KAẆA- ’stoop’ swelling GL:25
4 G. caug humped, bulging KAVA- swelling GL:25
5 G. caug bent KAVA- bending GL:25
6 G. cav- to bend, make stoop KAVA- bending GL:25
7 G. corm globe, a ring or circle, a disc *KORO- ring GL:26
8 G. corob skull *KORO- head GL:26
9 G. cub hollow *KUPU- cavity GL:27
10 G. cûf hollow *KUPU- cavity GL:27
11 G. cûm mound, especially grave, burial mound KUMU- ’heap up’ lump GL:27
12 G. cuptha- to bend (tr.) *KUVU- bending GL:27
13 G. cuvon bowed, bent, concave *KUVU- bending GL:27
14 G. gob hollow of hand *KOPO- cavity GL:40
15 N. calf water-vessel KALPA- vessel LR:362
16 N. crib- to bend krikw- bending PE13:141
17 N. cumb, cum mound, heap KUB- lump LR:365
18 N. gamp hook, claw GAP- hook LR:357
19 Q. kalpa water-vessel KALPA- vessel LR:362
20 Q. kalpa- to draw water, scoop out, bale out KALPA- cavity LR:362
21 Q. kamba bend [sic], crooked KAVA- < *KABA- bending GL:25
22 Q. kambe hollow (of hand) KAB- ’hollow’ cavity LR:361
23 Q. kambo cellar, cave, vault KAVA- < *KABA- dome QL:45
24 Q. kauka crooked, bent, bowed KAẆA- ’stoop’ bending QL:45, GL:25
25 Q. kauka humped KAẆA- ’stoop’ swelling QL:45
26 Q. kauko (-u) humpback KAẆA- ’stoop’ swelling GL:25
27 Q. kauta- to bend *KAW- bending PE16:100
28 Q. kava- to dig KAVA- < *KABA- cavity QL:45
29 Q. kawin I bow, make obeisance KAẆA- ’stoop’ bending QL:45
30 Q. kolma ring KOL- ring VT45:23
31 Q. kōma ball KOMO- ring QL:47
32 Q. kōmea globe-shaped, round KOMO- ring QL:47
33 Q. kop- hollow of hand *KOPO- cavity GL:40
34 Q. korma ring *KOR- ring LotR
35 Q. -kumba bellied *KUB- swelling SD:68,72
36 Q. kumbe mound, heap KUB- lump LR:365
37 Q. kumbe pile, heap, load, burden KUMU- ’heap up’ lump QL:49
38 Q. kúme pile, heap, load, burden KUMU- ’heap up’ lump QL:49
39 Q. kumpo pile KUMU- ’heap up’ lump QL:49
40 Q. kūne crescent, bow KUVU- ’bend, bow’ bending QL:49
41 Q. kupta- to hump up, look humpy, etc. KUPU- ’hump’ swelling QL:49
42 Q. kuptulo camel KUPU- ’hump’ swelling QL:49
43 Q. kuve bow KUB- bending PE22:102
44 S. carab hat *KARAP- headgear WJ:426
45 S. haudh funeral mound KHAB- ’heap up, pile up’ lump PE19:91
46 T. hamna funeral mound KHAB- ’heap up, pile up’ lump PE19:91

Before proceeding, let us look at some statistics and compare the Elvish data with the natural languages (excluding Cohen’s data). For the first consonant, one finds the following distributions:

For the vowel:

Finally, for the second consonant:

I do not think that much can be said about the distributions of the consonants: The commonness of K probably just reflects its relative commonness compared to G or H in the languages involved. The high frequency of V in Elvish is clearly due to the Quenya shift of [b] > [v], and so on. However, looking at the distribution of vowels, one finds the same pattern as in Cohen’s data: While A is the most common vowel, E almost does not appear at all and I only very little. Here, one can make a quantitative comparison to the rank-frequencies of Elvish vowels. For Sindarin (including the Noldorin of the “Etymologies”), I have calculated them directly [4]; for Quenya only in initial and final position in conjuncture with consonants [6] (using a list of words from the “Etymologies” only). The latter two actually give similar results and thus should be a reasonable approximation:

So while the commonness of A in the kup/korb shape clearly reflects its commonness in Elvish overall, a striking deviation is the near-absence of E, I on the one hand, and the highly increased frequency of O, U on the other (especially U). It is not difficult to see that the vowels O and U, which involve lip rounding, are particularly iconic in their reference to rounded or convex shapes, so that the preference given to them over E and I ties in well with the semantics. This appears to be true for Elvish and natural languages alike (and can be also seen in Cohen’s data above).

Finally, we can also compare the distribution of the words among the semantic fields:

Here we can see a lot of differences. While vessel is the most common semantic field in natural languages, it is almost not represented in Elvish, occurring only in the words Q. kalpa, N. calf ‘water-vessel’. The two most common fields in Elvish are bending and lump, which are also common in natural languages. On the other hand, cavity and swelling are noticeably more common in Elvish. It would appear that all of this simply reflects Tolkien’s taste, his own association with the kup/korb sound shape.

6  Hobbit as a sound-symbolic universal

We can now formulate the following hypothesis: The word hobbit is related to a universal sound-symbolic shape kup, defined by velarrounded vowellabial (or korb with an optional liquid) which independently occurs in many languages and is semantically centered around the idea of convexity or concavity1. In natural languages it occurs most frequently in names for vessels of various kind, followed by words for ‘lump’ and words related to bending. Tolkien places it most commonly among ‘bending’, ‘lump’, ‘cavity’ and ‘swelling’. And hobbit has been conceived not just on its own, but along with its hole in the ground.

Following the creation of the word, Tolkien has always explained it as ‘hole-dweller’, sometimes as ‘hole-maker’ (see below). At the end of The Lord of the Rings, the true Westron word rendered by English hobbit is said to be kuduk, related to a Rohan word kûd-dûkan (LotR App. F, note 1). In an earlier conception, however, the endonym used in the Shire was cūbuc (with final vowel loss and devoicing of cūbug(u)), pl. cūbugin, a reflex of an Old Westron word cūg-bagu ‘hole-dweller’, preserved in Rohan (PE:49). Other earlier variants include:

In the preparatory conceptions of Westron, we also find:

Obviously, we have that kūg or kūd is ‘hole’, while -bagu(l), -badul or -dūka is ‘dweller’, but in the usage of the Shire, the word does not seem to be analyzable any longer, the two elements fuse into a kup shape (except for kuduk, of course). On the other hand, glōba and kubu, kubal confirm to the shape right from the start.

So it would appear that hobbit simply reflects Tolkien’s preference of kup to denote hollow cavities rather than vessels. The seeds were already laid in his languages by G. cub, cûf ‘hollow’, gob ‘hollow of hand’, Q. kop- hollow (of hand)’ and kava- ‘dig’ appearing in the Gnomish and Qenya Lexicons long before the Hobbit. Finally, one may speculate that his choice of [h] as the initial sound was influenced by the English word ‘hole’, while the ending -it shows a high front vowel typical of diminutives [6].


I would like to thank Lőrinczi Gábor and Valeria Barouch for helpful discussions.



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Liberman also discusses English pig, which is of uncertain origin, though strikingly similar to Dutch big of the same meaning [2]. This might be due to a reversed kup shape where the labial and velar switch places. And indeed, in Elvish we find T. balga ‘hump’ (PE13:138), Q. pere̜qa ‘crooked’ (QL:73); in natural languages words like Fin. möhkäle ‘lump’, pahka ‘burl, gnarl’, paakku ‘lump, gob, clod’, Jap. mage- ‘bend, twist’, mak- ‘wind, coil, roll’ and so on; but I have not attempted to investigate this in detail.
Interestingly, this implies that the unusual change a > u took place, again towards a more iconic rounded vowel.

This document was translated from LATEX by HEVEA.