Monday, November 27, 2006


I learned a new word today. Rather, I learned that an old word does not mean anything near what I thought it did. This is one of the problems with reading books containing words you don't know. It is also one of the advantages.

Since I was in elementary school, I have been reading The Lord of the Rings. I counted twelve times reading through the three volumes, and then stopped counting but kept reading (less frequently). JRR Tolkien was such a master of language and a fan of Old English that he used many words whose meanings I ignored or took for granted. One of the last couple times I read the books I looked up every word whose meaning I didn't know. I also compiled a list of my favorite very English words from the book.

Tonight I realized I missed a word. In the very first chapter, the hobbits are discussing the adopted heir of Bilbo, the famous adventurer. The heir is an orphaned cousin, Frodo. Said the Gaffer, "Anyway: there was this Mr. Frodo left an orphan and stranded, as you might say, among those queer Bucklanders, being brought up anyhow in Brandy Hall. A regular warren, by all accounts. Old Master Gorbadoc never had fewer than a couple of hundred relations in the place." (from The Fellowship of the Ring) Now, having read the book so many times, I have a pretty good mental image of what Frodo was like at different periods of his life. As a child he was a bit of a rascal (in fact the book uses that word a few chapters later), but in the child-like sense. I don't want to say innocent, because stealing isn't innocent. But he was never going to be a permanent criminal.

So all my life I have applied that meaning to "warren." I've never used the word until tonight. I suppose I compared it to warrant, which is an order for arrest. And the context of the Fellowship of the Ring makes me think of kids without proper parenting, left to fend for themselves and get into trouble because there were too many kids to look after. You may know kids like that. They get into trouble, scrapes, and run confidently through the world as if they'll never get caught. Such know exactly how to manipulate their authorities to get what they want and escape consequences.

The problem is, that isn't what the word means. "Warren" refers to, basically, a rabbit hole or den; a crowded place (taken from the idea that rabbits have many babies frequently, and so their homes are abounding with tenants). Tolkien was of course making a play on words, since hobbit sounds so much like rabbit; they have hairy feet and live in holes. The word is perfectly appropriate for the context of Brandy Hall (which has nothing to do with the beverage so far as I've learned).

Now another problem: "warren" was the only word of which I could think to fit the meaning I was trying to indicate in my previous post. Rascal is too dark. Terror comes to mind. My grandpa, in fact, uses a word beginning with a 'p' to describe his grandkids when they're not behaving, but it has escaped me. So I left "warren," hoping that you'll be curious enough to learn a new word. And who knows? I could initiate the murder of an English word by totally transforming its meaning. If I keep using the word to mean ill-mannered brat, will it catch on?

On a similar note, another word to whose mistaken meaning I was alerted this week is "peruse." It does not mean "glance" or "skim." Peruse is really a word meaning to examine in detail, to read through thoroughly. Dennis Prager had a grammarian on his talkshow and a listener called in to ask her about the word. confirms this as a common mistake. I thought you might want to know.

To God be all glory.


Dr. Paleo Ph.D. said...

Hmm, neat about "peruse". I see I've been using it wrong!!!

It's good that you've owned up to your wrong usage of the word warren, though. Many people wouldn't.

Hilts said...

That's very interesting about 'peruse'. I would never have known that. It seems that word has already been 'murdered' by common usage; at least everyone I know would use it that way.

Dr. Paleo Ph.D. said...

Me included. ;-P