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Whale-horses and morses: Tolkien and the walrus in the OED

With the once-in-a-lifetime visit by a young male walrus to the island of North Ronaldsay in Orkney making the news on 3 March, it seems like a good time to look back at the coincidence of one particularly famous Oxford lexicographer’s tussle with the history of the word ‘walrus’, and an earlier visit by a living example of the species to our shores.

The walrus and the lexicographer

In 1919 and 1920, in the months immediately following his demobilization from the army following the First World War, J. R. R. Tolkien was an assistant on the staff of Editor Henry Bradley, working on the first edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. Among Tolkien’s tasks was the drafting of etymologies for words of Germanic origin in the range then being worked on, from waggle to warlock. One of the more complex word-histories given to the young philologist to untangle was that for walrus, a word of disputed origin that had all but entirely replaced the earlier English name morse since its first appearance in English in the late 1600s.

All the drafting work for the first edition of the Dictionary was done on scraps of paper (roughly equivalent to the modern A6 size), and some of the slips survive in the OED archive on which Tolkien, in his distinctive handwriting, worked out his etymology for walrus.

On these slips, Tolkien assembled a range of cognate words from other Germanic languages, dividing them into two types: those which resembled Modern English walrus, and those like Old English horschwæl (horse-whale) or German rosswal. Noting that the latter type seemed to be earlier than the former, he suggested that the Old Norse word for walrus, rosmhvalr, had become confused with the name of some unknown species of whale, hrosshvalr (literally ‘horse whale’; deemed by Tolkien to be ‘zoologically improbable’ as a name for the walrus itself). Eventually a not uncommon switching—metathesis—of the two syllables of hrosshvalr could have occurred as the word was adopted by another Germanic language, to give forms like the Dutch walros or walrus, from which the word was probably borrowed into English as a loanword in the seventeenth century.

Tolkien’s work on walrus was both original and sound, and appeared in print in October 1921 largely unchanged. It, along with two other entries researched and drafted by Tolkien (walnut and wampum), was among those proudly singled out in the preface to W by the editors Bradley and Craigie as containing ‘etymological facts or suggestions not given in other dictionaries’.

This may not be news to you, if you’re deeply interested, either in the names of the Pinnipedia or (as some people are) the life and works of J. R. R. Tolkien. Something that is probably less well known—to fans of either Tolkien or walruses—is that the publication of Tolkien’s work in the W–Wash fascicle of the OED in October 1921 coincided with another visit of this iconic arctic animal to Scottish waters, and a debate over whether or not the walrus deserved to be regarded as a British mammal.

A notable stranger

The first volume of Archibald Thorburn’s British Mammals appeared in 1920, complete with a handsome colour plate featuring three walruses disporting themselves on ice floes at sea, and with accompanying text that (as well as repeating the derivation from Scandinavian hvalros rejected by Tolkien in his drafts) made it clear that it was a beast ‘only rarely seen or captured in British waters.’ Nevertheless, some reviewers found the plate for the walrus ‘a little unexpected’, and by the time volume two appeared in 1921, Thorburn felt the need to defend himself in an additional note, ‘as exception [had] been taken to the inclusion of this species as a British Mammal’. Luckily, he had very recent evidence on which to draw in order to support his case.

On 21 August 1920, Henry Jamieson, keeper of the Skerries Lighthouse in Shetland, had written to the Scottish Naturalist magazine to report the presence of a walrus in the waters around the lighthouse for six weeks or more. Like the recent visitor to Ronaldsay, it seemed to spend most of its time sleeping or basking in the sun, and ‘it was often yawning during its sleep, for occasionally it opened such a big mouth as if its whole face was lifting on a hinge.’ However, while this weekend’s visitor to Orkney was reported to be ‘happy to be the centre of attention’, the ‘notable stranger’ who visited the Skerries in 1920 was rather more skittish, disappearing ‘with a neat dive’ when a party of ladies ventured onto the shore to have a closer look.

In the next issue of the Scottish Naturalist in January 1921, James Ritchie discussed the history of the walrus in British waters, examining the fossil and archaeological evidence for its presence in earlier times and quoting at length from a vernacular translation of the Latin work of the Scottish historian Hector Boece (1465–1536), which appears to show that the walrus was a common visitor to the Northern Isles in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries:

In Orkney is ane gret fische, mair than ony hors, of mervellus and incredible sleip. This fische, quen scho beginnis to sleip, fesnis hir teeth fast on ane crag above the watter.

In Orkney there is a great fish, greater than any horse, with a marvellous and incredible way of sleeping. This fish, when she begins to sleep, fastens her teeth fast on a rock above the water.

(Boece continues with an account of the sleeping beast being taken by hunters, including the fanciful assertion that the surprise of waking to find itself tied up was enough to make it leap out of its own skin, thus bringing about its death.) Ritchie concludes with a list of twenty-four sightings of walruses around the British Isles between 1815 and 1921, including another sighting from 1920 in the Moray Firth, and a remarkable record of a specimen seen as far south as the mouth of the River Severn in 1839.

At the same time that Ritchie was examining the evidence of fossils, the walrus-ivory Lewis chessmen, and Boece’s account of the ‘gret fische’ of Orkney in his attempt to place the walrus in the history of the marine fauna of Britain, J. R. R. Tolkien’s reconstruction of the prehistory of the word itself was going to press. The question of the walrus’s place in the list of British mammals might continue to be open to question, but with the appearance only a few months later of the W–Wash fascicle of the OED, the position and history of the word walrus in the English language became much clearer. We may never know where the North Ronaldsay walrus swam from to get here, but we do know, thanks to a lexicographer better known for his invented etymologies and mythical beasts, the route by which its name (most probably) swam into English from the chilly northern waters of its birth.