Word of the Day: Bilbo

April 8, 2010 in Uncategorized, Word of the Day

Perhaps there will one day be a site called ‘Open Tolkein’. Until then, allow me to draw your attention to the occurences of the name of one of the Old Inkling’s most famous characters in the works of the Bard.

Although there are many fairies and spirits in Shakespeare’s works, and the occasionaly talking animal, there is a notable shortage of hobbits, let alone hobbit names. What then would ‘bilbo’ mean?

The word is quintessentially Elizabethan: its first recorded use in English is by Shakespeare in the Merry Wives of Windsor, and available examples decline rapidly after 1630, resurfacing only to add historical tone to such later works as Sir Walter Scott’s Woodstock of 1826. In all these examples, ‘bilbo’ means a type of sword, or, as an extension of this, a swashbuckling bully, one wearing of a ‘bilbo’. This is the sense of the word in The Merry Wives of Windsor, used as Falstaff describes his ignonimous concealment in a laundry basket:

FALSTAFF…I suffered the pangs of three several deaths: first, an intolerable fright to be detected with a jealous rotten bell-wether; next, to be compassed like a good bilbo in the circumference of a peck, hilt to point, heel to head; and then, to be stopped in, like a strong distillation, with stinking clothes that fretted in their own grease: think of that

The word ‘bilbo’ comes from ‘Bilbao’ or ‘Bilboa’, a town in Northern Spain that was renowned for its ironwork during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Such ironwork included swords that were, according to the OED, “noted for the temper and elasticity of its blade”, but also comprised other products, one of which finds its way into a very famous speech by Hamlet.

HAMLET Sir, in my heart there was a kind of fighting
That would not let me sleep: methought I lay
Worse than the mutinies in the bilboes. Rashly,
And prais’d be rashness for it,–let us know,
Our indiscretion sometime serves us well,
When our deep plots do fail; and that should teach us
There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.

“The mutinies in the bilboes” are sailors or soldiers convicted of mutiny and punished by being attached to “A long iron bar, furnished with sliding shackles to confine the ankles of prisoners, and a lock by which to fix one end of the bar to the floor or ground”. Good quality spanish iron prevented any thoughts of escape, but was pliable enough to be shaped into shackles. Hamlet mentioning the word may also suggest that his thoughts are already turning towards his duel with Laertes, which may well have been conducted with bilbo-swords.

Thus concludes our tour of Spain, ironmongery, existentialism and laundry baskets. One final thought: Tolkein, as far as I know, never revealed the origin of his hobbit’s name, but, bearing in mind that Bilbo’s destiny is shaped first by the forged ring but also by the beautifully crafted sword, Sting, he bears, one might suggest that Tolkein, well-read academic that he was, was making a crafty little reference to a scarce-noted word in Shakespeare’s works.

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