Mind your language

Mind Your Language: Waybread

How a word given a new meaning by J.R.R. Tolkien made it into the Oxford English Dictionary

16 January 2016

9:00 AM

16 January 2016

9:00 AM

‘Did you say “fabric”?’ asked my husband when I was telling him about words that have just been added to the Oxford English Dictionary. No, phablet, but I can see why he misheard. It’s a dull portmanteau word meaning ‘half phone, half tablet,’ just as the first citation, from an Australian periodical, explained in 2010. How long will phablets last?

A far more interesting item in the OED’s new intake is waybread. It was invented by J.R.R. Tolkien for a tale in 1951, but is better known from The Lord of the Rings (1954).

‘The food was mostly in the form of very thin cakes, made of a meal that was baked a light brown on the outside, and inside was the colour of cream,’ it explains. The Elves ‘call it lembas or waybread, and it is more strengthening than any food made by Men’.

In 2006, in their fascinating book The Ring of Words, Peter Gilliver, Jeremy Marshall and Edmund Weiner noted Tolkien’s explanation that it stood for the Elvish word lembas, from len ‘way’ and bas ‘bread’.

They also remark on the observation that lembas resembles in some way the Holy Eucharist, especially as taken by way of viaticum just before death, as sustenance for the journey to heaven. Viaticum was originally an ordinary Latin word meaning ‘provision for the journey’.

Now Tolkien did not use allegory in The Lord of the Rings, which he meant as a myth. Yet he acknowledged in a letter in 1958 that someone had seen resemblances to viaticum in waybread feeding the will and ‘being more potent when fasting’. He addressed this by saying: ‘Far greater things may colour the mind in dealing with the lesser things of a fairy story.’

Tolkien knew, as a philologist who had worked on the OED, that there was already a word waybread, which simply meant ‘plantain’ (not banana, but the wild plant Plantago). It comes from Anglo-Saxon days, and the –bread element simply meant ‘broad’, referring to the leaves.

What is remarkable is that in writings about viaticum in the past two decades, it is often referred to as waybread, as though that was how it had always been known in English.

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