J. R. R. Tolkien was a great lover of words. It showed both — in his extensive vocabulary and talent to choose words with great precision to make his texts come alive with various shades of lexical meanings. One of the most special traits of Tolkien’s writing was a mastery usage of archaic style. A particularly interesting example of obsolete vocabulary can be found in The Hobbit.
The overall style of The Hobbit is strikingly unlike those of The Lord of the Rings and, especially, of The Silmarillion. Archaic vocabulary and phrase turns do occur in Bilbo’s story, but on the whole The Hobbit is written in a light, playful tone that differs greatly from the poetic prose of The Lord of the Rings and solemn grandeur of The Silmarillion. Certain words deserve special attention, though.
When in Mirkwood Bilbo, unseen thanks to the power of his Ring, has to use his imagination and courage to rescue the Dwarves from the spiders’ cocoons, he creates a song right on the spot:
Old fat spider spinning in a tree!
Old fat spider can’t see me!
Won’t you stop,
Stop your spinning and look for me?
(Hobbit, p. 185)
This whimsical song is meant to infuriate the spiders and drive them away from the captured Dwarves, but what on Earth is attercop? It is a very interesting lexical choice given by Tolkien to Bilbo as attercop can be interpreted in two ways.
The first meaning of the word attercop, which dates back as far as approximately 1000 AD, is ‘spider’. In its present-day form it comes from the Old English word attorcoppe — ‘spider’ (with variants of spelling including atorcoppe and attercoppe). Attorcoppe consists of two elements. The first of them is attor (or ator), and it means ‘poison’, while the second — copp — might mean ‘head’, ‘top’, ‘summit’, ‘cup’ or probably simply ‘spider’. Put together, the word can be literally interpreted as ‘poison-head’. The name dates back to the belief that spiders were very poisonous. This belief, in fact, proves true with the Dwarves. As Bilbo frees them from the tightly woven nets, we see that Fili “was feeling very sick and ill from spider-poison” and some Dwarves were not really well-off as they “had been more poisoned” than others.
The second meaning of attercop is far less flattering. While the first simply defines the species and where in the world of fauna they belong, though in a rather special way, the second is a downright offence. Circa 1500 AD another meaning of attercop developed, and it came to mean ‘ill-natured, spiteful, peevish person’. Both of the word meanings did infuriate the arachnids of Mirkwood as “no spider has ever liked being called Attercop”. Neither meaning comes across as exactly flattering: the latter one is downright insulting, while ‘poison-head’ does not come across as a particularly polite way to address a spider, either. Sitting next to Tomnoddy (a fool, simpleton), these words make a very offensive partnership.
The word attercop is now obsolete: it can now be seen in the term Attercopus fimbriunguis denoting an extinct kind of arachnids or it can be heard in some regions around Britain, namely in Scottish, Northumberland and Yorkshire dialects to name but a few. In her book Rustic Speech and Folk-Lore Elizabeth Mary Wright, who was the wife of Tolkien’s Oxford tutor, the linguist Joe Wright, regrets the diminishing of the word attercop and states:
Many a delightful old word which ran away from a public career a century or two ago, and left no address, may thus be discovered in its country retreat, hale and hearty yet, though hoary with age.
(Rustic Speech and Folk-Lore, p. 85)
So, it is an obsolete dialect word one can expect to hear from Bilbo, and by using it, the Hobbit masterfully conveys several layers of meaning in just one lexical unit.
Another two interesting words occurring in the same song are lob and cob:
Lazy Lob and crazy Cob
are weaving webs to wind me.
I am far more sweet than other meat,
but still they cannot find me!
(Hobbit, p. 186)
Both are archaic words for ‘spider’. Lob existed in the form lobbe in Old English (with loppe also possible, but questioned). The same word appears in the name of the giant spider Shelob, which is interpreted as ‘female spider’ (she + lob). Cob comes from the Old English word copp, which was discussed above. In Modern English in the meaning of ‘spider’ it can only be found in the word cobweb, but is never used on its own. Both these words are harmless by themselves, but paired with perfectly alliterated with them lazy and crazy, they can indeed cause offence.
Bilbo’s song, made up “on the spur of a very awkward moment”, mocks the Mirkwood spiders, but also shows how many words existed for arachnids in the past or still remain in dialects. This encounter with the spiders becomes one of the most pivotal moments for Bilbo in his personal transformation, while his song demonstrates that the Hobbit “was not quite so prosy as he liked to believe”.
- J. R. R. Tolkien – The Hobbit; HarperCollinsPublishers; London; 2012.
- Bosworth-Toller Anglo-Saxon Dictionary
- Elizabeth Mary Wright – Rustic Speech and Folk-Lore; Oxford University Press; 1913 (digital edition).
Featured image: Théodore Rousseau – Edge of the Forest at Fontainebleau, Setting Sun