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Old and Rare Words

Archaic or Unusual Words found in Tolkien’s Works

This page lists archaic or unusual words used in Tolkien's works. The list also includes a few colloquial terms that are still in common use in British English, like tipsy or midge, but might be unfamiliar to English-speakers from elsewhere in the world.

This list should include most of the uncommon or obscure terms used by Tolkien in his work. If you think we've missed anything important, though, feel free to suggest any other words or phrases you'd like to see included.

abide 1 put up with, tolerate
abide 2 dwell, stay in a place, await
abjure renounce, turn away from
abroad in the open, at large
adamant diamond, or (more generally) any very hard substance
afield away, especially from home
aforetime in earlier times
aghast terrified, amazed
agin a dialect word meaning 'against', 'next to'
alms-guest one given shelter as an act of charity
amiss not as things should be
anon soon; ever and anon often
apace quickly
argent silver or (especially in heraldry) silver-white
askance to look with eyes squinted; most commonly seen in the phrase look askance, to view someone or something in a suspicious or doubtful manner
assuage soften, lessen, soothe
attercop spider (originally meaning 'poison-head', and historically used as an insult as well as a literally)
aught anything
aumbry small cupboard or closet
awry crooked, out of proper order (pronounced 'a-wry')

backarapper a firework made from firecrackers folded together to explode one after the other (a dialect word from the English Midlands)
bade old past tense of 'bid', pronounced 'bad'; bade farewell said goodbye
baldric a shoulder-belt for carrying horns, swords, etc
baleful malignant, filled with evil
baluster a railing supported by small pillars (Tolkien's usage is archaic; in modern English a baluster is a single pillar, and the entire pillared structure is a balustrade)
bane a person or item that causes death
bannock flat bread-cake
barrel the long, cylindrical part of a key
baseborn ignoble, illegitimate
bay (of a dog) bark or howl
bebother bring extreme trouble upon
befall happen, occur
belie give a false impression
benighted in, or overtaken by, darkness
beset attacked, assaulted by enemies
besom a stiff broom made out of sticks and twigs
besotted 1 made drunk
besotted 2 obsessed, entranced
besought old past tense of beseech
bier platform for carrying a coffin or body
bight a curved recess in the edge of a geographical feature, such as a coast or forest tree-line
billow (large) wave
bivouac temporary camp, without tents
blazoned painted or inscribed (an heraldic term)
blench flinch, give way in fear
bole the trunk of a tree, particularly the part below its branches
bond storage of wine, etc, until duty has been paid; out of bond released from this
booby stupid person
boon favour, gift
bower 1 space surrounded by foliage
bower 2 an inner or private chamber
brace pair
brake thicket
brazen made of brass
brood 1 children
brood 2 related creatures
brook tolerate, accept
buckler a small round shield, held in one hand
bulwark a defensive structure
burg a fortress, or a fortified town
burgeon come forth, bud, begin to grow quickly
burnished polished
byre cow-shed

cairn a mound of stones or rocks, used as a marker, memorial or tomb
candle a type of firework, usually designed to be held in the hand
canker one of various diseases of plants or animals; used figuratively to suggest a corrupting influence
carcanet jewelled necklace
carouse drink heavily
carven old form of 'carved'
cataract waterfall
cesspool a pool of waste-water or sewage
chalcedony a precious form of quartz: onyx, agate and cornelian are all types of chalcedony
champ (of a horse) munch on the bit, showing eagerness
chime agree with, be in harmony with
chine deep and narrow ravine
churl a person lacking manners or breeding; churlish rude, ungrateful or mean
circlet a thin band of precious metal, worn on the head
clave old past tense of cleave, in the sense 'stick, adhere'
close-serried packed tightly together
cloven split into two
coëval born at the same time
cob spider (the name survives in the term 'cobweb')
coffer strongbox, especially for holding valuables
comely pleasant-looking
commons shared food; short commons insufficient food
compass accomplish, achieve
conclave a meeting, or the place where a meeting is held
concourse large group of people; crowd
coney rabbit
confines borders; borderlands
confusticate confuse, baffle
conjoint united, combined; conjoint rule the rule of a kingdom divided equally between two or more leaders
cony rabbit
coomb short valley in the side of a hill or mountain
coop cage, imprison
coronal circlet or garland worn around the head
corslet a piece of armour covering the body, but not the arms or legs
cot a small shelter; the origin of the word 'cottage'
counsels words of advice
courtesy 1 politeness, consideration
courtesy 2 formal gesture made by a woman; better known in its modern form, 'curtsy'
coverlet quilt, bed-covering
covert a shelter, especially one created naturally by trees or bushes
covet be jealous of, desire
cozen lie to, cheat, deceive
cracker firework designed to explode with a loud noise
craven coward
crocks items of crockery: plates, dishes, etc.
cudgel A short club, or a stick used as a weapon
culvert a channel carrying water beneath a thoroughfare
cumbrous awkward, inconvenient
cunning-handed deft, artful, dexterous
cur a worthless or ill-tempered dog
curdle turn sour, congeal into lumps or curds

daffadowndilly an archaic and poetic variation on daffodil, a yellow or white spring flower
dainty morsel, delicacy
damask steel and iron specially welded to make a serpentine pattern
dank cold and damp
darkling dark (poetical)
dastard an ignoble and cowardly person
daunt intimidate
dearth scarcity or shortage, especially of food
declaim speak or recite passionately
deem consider, conclude
defile 1 sully, corrupt, ruin
defile 2 a narrow gorge or valley with steep sides
defray pay for
dell small valley
descry catch sight of, especially something difficult to see
devices things, especially situations, devised or engineered
dingle deep hollow, usually shaded with trees
dissemble hide one's true intentions
divers numerous and various
doggrel trivial or worthless verse; the modern spelling doggerel is incorrectly printed in some editions of The Lord of the Rings
dolven delved, mined, dug out
doom fate (as opposed to modern usage, doom in this sense is not necessarily bad)
dotard a person who has lost their wits, especially through old age
doughty strong, powerful
dour stern, unyielding; dour-handed steady-handed
draught 1 drawing or pulling force
draught 2 a drink drawn from a barrel or storage jar
draught 3 the depth of water needed to sail a ship, hence a vessel of great draught is particulary large
drear dismal, gloomy
dregs sediment found at the bottom of wine, tea, etc. To 'drink to the dregs' is to completely drain a cup or (metaphorically) fully involve oneself
dromund large ship
dry (of bricks or stone) laid without mortar
durst old form of 'dare' or 'dared'; durstn't not dare
dwimmer-crafty skilled in the arts of magic, especially having powers of illusion

earth-dolven mined from the earth
eaves the fringe of a forest (from the resemblance of the overhanging forest canopy to the eaves of a house); also used figuratively for the edges of a mountain range
ell a measure of length, usually equivalent to 45 inches or 114 cm (though Tolkien defines an ell as used by the Hobbits as measuring just 29 inches, or about 69 cm, presumably due to the the Hobbits' own small size)
embattled 1 of a fortress, having battlements
embattled 2 of an army, fortified against attack (this is the dictionary definition, but in The Lord of the Rings, Tolkien's usage seems to mean simply 'in battle')
embrasure bevelled opening in a wall, especially for a door or window
encompass surround
ere before
errantry journeying in search of adventure
espy catch sight of
esquire bearer of a knight's arms and shield
essay attempt
esteem consider to be of worth; esteem too lightly underestimate
et a variation of 'ate', common in British rural dialects
etten eaten - see 'et'
ewer large, wide-mouthed water jug
eyot a small island, especially found in a river

fag-end last remnant
faggot bundle of sticks used as firewood
falter waver, lose courage
fane temple
fare travel, go on a journey
fastness secure fortress
fathom a distance of 6 feet (used especially for rope or cloth); the 'feet' of the Hobbits were rather shorter than ours, so a distance of 6 Hobbit feet was equivalent to modern 4 feet 6 inches, or about 1.4 metres
fawn cringe, grovel
fealty allegiance and service to a lord
feign pretend
fell 1 merciless, terrifying
fell 2 animal's hide
fell 3 moorland hill
fender a metal frame placed around a fireplace
fetter chain, shackle
fey heedless of death; having no thought for one's own fate
fief land under the power of a lord owing allegiance in turn to a higher lord or king
figured marked with drawings or writing
fillet narrow band worn around the head
firth An inlet of the sea at a wide river estuary
flagon large jug or mug, usually used to hold wine or beer
flammifer in Latin, flammifer literally means 'fiery', but Tolkien's usage is likely meant to suggest 'flame-bearer', as a reference to the blazing Silmaril borne by Eärendil.
flank the exposed side of an attacking or marching army
flotsam floating wreckage; flotsam and jetsam items washed up by the sea, or a flood (also used figuratively)
flummoxed bewildered, disconcerted
footpad a thief (historically, a 'footpad' was a highwayman who had no horse)
forbear hold back from
forebode foresee (especially something that is evil)
forespeak foretell, predict
foreswear swear not to do something
forgo let go, do without
forlorn abandoned, desolate
forsake desert, turn away from (the past tense is forsook)
forsooth in truth, actually
fortnight a period of two weeks
fosse a defensive trench or ditch
founder sink, after taking on water
fountain firework designed to be placed on the ground, spraying coloured sparks
fraught full (of)
freshet a stream, or (strictly) a flood of fresh water
frith a complex archaic word with multiple possible interpretations; the particular sense meant by Tolkien is uncertain, but in context he probably intends 'peaceful place' or 'sanctuary'
froward stubborn, rebellious
furlong one eighth of a mile (220 yards), or about one fifth of a kilometre

gable narrowing part of a wall beneath its roof, usually triangular in shape
gaffer a word meaning both 'old man' and 'foreman': its use as the nickname of Hamfast Gamgee is probably intended to combine both meanings.
gainsay contradict
gallop boil and bubble
game crippled
gammer old woman
gangrel lean and awkward (equivalent to modern gangling)
garn an English dialect word used to express disbelief or disagreement, literally meaning 'go on' (in the sense of 'go away', 'be off with you')
garner granary or storehouse
garnet deep red gem
garth an enclosed garden or yard
ghyll deep ravine
gibbet A gallows built to display the body of an executed criminal
gimlet A sharp boring tool, similar in general design to a corkscrew; see like gimlets see sharply
girdle 1 belt or cord used especially to confine clothing
girdle 2 something which surrounds or encircles; girdle of Arda the central regions of Arda, equidistant from the far north and south
girt bound or attached with a belt
glede burning coal or cinder
gloaming the twilight of evening
glower scowl, frown
goggle stare with round eyes
gold in the gold to hit something exactly (a reference to the central colour of an archery target)
grandsire grandfather
graven engraved, carved
greened made green from the mosses and lichens on a tree's trunk
grist crops ready to be ground by a mill
grot old form of 'grotto'; an ornamental or picturesque cavern
guerdon reward
guileful treacherous, deceitful
gunwale the top edge of a boat's side, pronounced (and sometimes spelt) 'gunnel'

habergeon a mail-coat with short sleeves, or no sleeves at all
hale robust, strong of body
hallow (as a verb) bless, make holy; (as a noun) a blessed or holy place
halt lame
hame hide, pelt
hang to leave food, especially game, in the open until it becomes 'high' or tender
harbour succour, assistance
hardly 1 with great difficulty
hardly 2 only just
harness military gear
harry ravage
haste hurry, rush
hauberk a long mail-coat, usually with sleeves
hayward literally a 'hedge ward'; a warden charged with watching over livestock and keeping them from straying
headstall a covering for a horse's head, used as an alternative to bridle and bit
hearken listen, pay attention
heed thought, consideration
heedless careless of danger
hence from here
hew chop, slice
hither 1 to here, to this place; hither and thither in various directions
hither 2 nearer, closer
hoar grey- or white-haired
hobble limp, walk with difficulty
hobnob converse in a friendly and casual way
hock the middle joint of a horse's or pony's leg
hog-back hill or ridge with a distinct crest
house-man a servant working in their master's house, rather than on their lands
hue 1 form or shape
hue 2 outcry, especially seen in hue and cry, a general call to pursue a wrongdoer or criminal
hummock a small hill or knoll (in The Lord of the Rings, 'hummock' is used metaphorically to describe the shape made by the palantír beneath Gandalf's cloak)
hunter's moon the full moon of mid- to late October
hythe a small harbour or haven, especially on a river

ill evil, wrong

jerkin jacket without sleeves
jetsam items thrown overboard from a ship, and later washed ashore

keen sharp
kerb a raised edge to a road or path
kindle set fire to, begin to burn
kine cattle

lappet flap or fold of a garment
lave wash, bathe
lay a poem that is meant to be sung
lea region of grassland
league a measure of distance, usually considered to be equivalent to three miles; actually a Hobbit league (or tigh in Bree) was a little shorter than a conventional league, at 4,800 yards (about 4,400 metres) rather than 5,280 yards (about 4,800 metres)
leaguer an encampment or encampments, especially for defensive purposes
leasow a meadow used for pasture
leave permission
lee shelter, especially from wind and weather
leech healer
leechcraft an old name for the practice of medicine, associated with the ancient belief that blood-sucking leeches had a healing effect
liege one bound by feudal alliance, either as a lord or a vassal. When Denethor calls Peregrin Took 'my liege' (The Return of the King V 1) he is using the word in the latter sense.
lissom lithe, supple
lithe supple, flexible
livery uniform of servants or soldiers following a certain lord or house
loath reluctant
lob spider (seen, for example, in the name Shelob)
longfather forefather, ancestor; longfather-tree family tree showing ancestry
loth reluctant [a variation on loath above]
louver a domed structure built on a roof with side-openings to allow smoke to escape
lower to become less high (used of hills, cliffs, and so on)

malefactor one who commits an evil act
mantle cloak, cover
mar spoil or damage beyond repair
march border
marchwarden border guard
mark notice, detect
marshal place in proper order
mast-lands wooded lands in which swine feed on the fruit of trees such as beeches or oaks
mattock a primitive weapon, originally a farming tool, perhaps best described as a double-headed battle-hoe
maw jaws and throat, especially of a ferocious animal
mayhap perhaps
mead 1 an alcoholic drink made from honey
mead 2 meadow
mere lake or pond
mew a type of gull
midge tiny airborne biting insect; not unlike a mosquito, but much smaller
mischance accident
misdoubt have suspicions or misgivings about someone or something
misgive fill with doubt or suspicion
moonshine fantastic ideas
moot a meeting or assembly, especially one called for discussion or debate
muff hand-warmer, made historically from fur
muster collect, assemble

nethermost lowest, deepest
nicety precision, exactness; weigh to a nicety measure exactly
niggard miserly person, especially one who gives gifts, but in a grudging manner
nigh near; well nigh, wellnigh almost, very nearly
nightshade probably simply 'darkness' (the literal use of this word appears to be unique to Tolkien - in historical English, it is only used figuratively as the name of a poisonous plant)
noisome foul-smelling, poisonous
nook corner, recess
notch set an arrow to a bowstring, ready to fire
nuncheon light meal eaten at midday

oast kiln for drying hops, or the building that houses one
obeisance bowing or kneeling in submission
oft often
ostler stable-keeper
oust take possession of another's lands, property, title, etc.
outworn exhausted
overbear defeat by weight of numbers
overweening arrogantly over-confident

palfrey riding horse, especially one used by a lady
pallid pale
panoply full suit of armour, often including weaponry
parapet defensive wall built to protect troops
parley discuss terms of peace or cease-fire
passward something granting passage of a guard
pate head, mind
pent restricted, confined
penthouse the area beneath a sloping roof, especially as a later extension to an existing building
perforce having no choice, being forced
picket stake driven into the ground; picketed horses horses tethered to pickets
pig-a-back a way of carrying a person or thing on the shoulders and back; sometimes spelt pick-a-back or piggy-back
pinion 1 a bird's wing, and especially the flight feathers
pinion 2 bind or hold fast (ultimately derived from [1] above - 'pinioning' originally referred to cutting a bird's wing to prevent it from flying away)
plash splash
portage overland transportation of a boat
portend foreshadow, give warning, act as an omen
portent omen, sign
postern a back- or side-entrance
profound deep
propound put forward; express an idea for others to consider
prosy dull, contented with the commonplace
provender food
puissant powerful, influential
purloin steal

quaff drink deeply
quail give way to, be intimidated by

raiment clothing
rearguard that part of an army set to cover its rear ranks, especially in retreat
recreant disloyal, unfaithful to duty (this is an old usage; in modern English, recreant more usually means 'cowardly')
rede counsel
redound contribute to, advance
redress setting right
reft past tense of the old word reave, to take by force
rent past tense of rend, to tear or split
repair go to
respite relief, calm interval
revelry merrymaking
revile insult, abuse
rick a stack, especially of hay
rill a small or narrow stream
riven split or broken
rope-walk rope-maker's yard
rude simple, primitive
rue regret, repent of
rumour sound
runagate vagabond, wanderer (though Tolkien plays on the etymological origins of the word, 'runaway, renegade')

sable heraldic term for black
sallow having yellow or pale brown skin
salver tray, usually made of some valuable metal
save except
scree small stones that slide over one another underfoot, or a mountain-slope covered with stones like these
semblance appearance
serf peasant (properly, an agricultural worker bound to a piece of land)
shade ghost or phantasm
shale outer shell of a seed
shank leg; especially that part between the knee and ankle
sheaf bundle or cluster of stalks
shoal a particularly shallow part of a river- or sea-bed
shore slice, tear (an old past tense of 'shear')
shun refuse
shuttering closing the shutter on a lamp, so that its light is hidden
sires forefathers, ancestors
sister-son nephew
slot track followed by a hunter
slowcoach someone who moves slowly, or is often late
sluggard slow or lazy person
smite strike, attack (the past tense is smote)
snuff sniff deeply
sojourn temporary stay
sooth true, truthful
sortie an attack launched by a besieged force
sparkler hand-held firework, designed to emit showers of sparks when ignited
spinney group of trees, or small wood
squib small explosive firework, usually designed to burn with a fizzing or hissing sound
staves 1 straight sticks used by travellers ('staves' is the old plural form of 'staff')
staves 2 verses or stanzas of a poem
stead place, position
stem block, hold back
stock the trunk or stump of a tree; stock and stone things of the natural world
stone-cast stone used as a missile in battle
stoop in falconry, to swoop on prey
straightway immmediately, directly
strait narrowly confining
straitly narrowly, tightly
strand shore, shoreline, especially a beach
stricken struck; (as an adjective) damaged, broken
succour give aid
sunder divide, separate
surcoat robe or tabard worn over armour, usually bearing insignia
surety certainty, assurance
surname an additional name indicating some quality or ability (as distinct from modern usage, surname in this context has no connection with family)
sward region of short grass, lawn
swart dark-skinned
swarthy dark-skinned
swath a strip of grass that has been flattened or mown
swoon faint
sword-thain noble soldier appointed by a king

tarn mountain lake
tarry pause, wait
thain lord or noble appointed by a king
thenceforward from that time on
thither to or in that place
thraldom slavery
thrall slave
thrawn 1 twisted, misshapen
thrawn 2 obstinate, stubborn
throe violent agony
throve old past tense of 'thrive'
thunder-clap airborne firework that explodes with a loud report
thwart foil, stop
tidings news
till cultivate, make land ready for growing crops
tilth cultivated earth
tippet a shoulder-length cape
tipsy slightly drunk
tithe one tenth
toils trap, snare
tomnoddy foolish person
toothsome pleasantly appetising
tor rocky hill, especially among moorland
torch slow-burning firework mainly designed to provide illumination, or to ignite other fireworks
toss-pot drunkard
tracery complex interlinked ornamentation
traffic trade
trammels nets, traps
trapessing wandering about, especially in a weary manner (this is an ancient form of a dialect word which is usually spelt traipsing in modern English)
traverse travel through or across
troth faith, loyalty; break troth betray friendship or alliance; pledge one's troth promise loyalty and faithfulness, especially as a betrothal
trothplighted betrothed, engaged to be married
trove found treasure
truncheon a wooden shaft used as a weapon, or part of a weapon
tryst an arranged meeting; break tryst fail to attend a tryst
tumult noisy disturbance
tunic a long, loose garment, usually without sleeves
tuppence two pence, a very small amount of money; not care tuppence have no interest
turnkey jailor
turves segments of earth cut from the ground complete with grass and roots
tussock clump of grass
twain two
twine twist strands together into a rope

umbel a cluster of flowers growing from a single stem, as in hemlock or parsley
unblazoned an heraldic term: plain, undecorated
ungentle rough, coarse
unmarked unseen, unnoticed
unquiet anxious, concerned
unrecked unconsidered, abandoned without thought
unsated unsatisfied
unsullied pure, uncorrupted
upbraid criticise
upheave push or force upwards
urchin mischievous child

vagabond homeless wanderer, vagrant
vale the valley of a river
vambrace armour worn on the forearm
van foremost ranks of an army
varmint pest, bothersome person or animal
vassal servant, bondsman
victuals foodstuff, provisions
vie struggle with, be rival to
vigil watchfulness; hold vigil make devotion
viol an old instrument, usually with six strings, similar to a violin but held in a vertical position like a 'cello
vittles food (a colloquial word derived from victuals)

waif homeless person
wain wagon; The Wain the constellation of the Plough or Big Dipper
wan pale
wards the 'teeth' of a key
ware old form of aware
waver 1 shimmer, flicker
waver 2 show indecision
wax grow stronger; increase
waylay intercept, prevent from going forward
wayward uncontrollable, unpredictable
wayworn tired or unkempt from travelling
weapontake a derivation of Old English wapentake, modernised in both spelling and usage. This word originally referred to a district or region, but Tolkien uses it more literally to mean the taking up of weapons.
web tapestry
wellnigh almost, very nearly
weregild a payment in compensation for a death
weskit A colloquial rendering of the word 'waistcoat'
wester move towards the west; (of the sun) pass towards sunset
wheedle coax, persuade
whelm engulf, cover
whence from where
whereat for which reason
wherefore for what (or which) reason
whet sharpen
whither to which place
wile trick, deceit
wizened of shrivelled appearance
wold an upland region of moorland
wont customarily, regularly; wont to err thus regularly make mistakes of this kind
woodwright A craftsman who works with wood
worrit worry
worst defeat
wrack 1 clouds being driven by a strong wind
wrack 2 destruction (an old form of modern wreck)
wraith ghost, apparition
wreathe engulf, surround (especially of vapour or fire)
wrest take by force
writhen twisted, formed into writhing shapes
wroth angry

yammer 1 wail, weep, whine
yammer 2 talk in a complaining or bad-tempered manner
yoke wooden harness for oxen; under the yoke under complete control
yonder over there
yore long ago

zenith highest point

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