When is a dwarf not a dwarf?

Recently, I saw a trailer for the soon-to-be-released second part of Peter Jackson’s epic film interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. It got me thinking about a story I’d once heard about the word dwarf and its plural forms. Research was called for! And for your reading pleasure, here are the results.

The tale I’d heard is that Tolkien invented the plural form dwarves. As the story goes, prior to the publication of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings (in 1937 and 1954), the English language only recognized dwarfs as the plural form. It was an interesting piece of trivia, very believable on some levels, but I didn’t make a judgement one way or the other and simply filed that detail away.

Until now.

A little bit of research quickly reveals some interesting historical information about dwarfs and dwarves. At first glance, some of it seems to support the assertion that Tolkien created the -ves plural form. One piece of circumstantial evidence, for example, is the title of Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. Released in 1937, it uses the -fs plural form. This is, by coincidence, the year of publication of The Hobbit, where Tolkien’s dwarves make their first appearance. A plausible connection of details here might lead a reader to deduce that Disney used dwarfs because dwarves had only just been coined and hadn’t yet become widely known.

But digging beneath the surface shows that this idea is shaky. The OED turns out to be a useful resource in this investigation, despite having internal contradictions. On the one hand, only dwarfs is presented as a proper plural form. On the other hand, one (and only one) of the historical citations — dating from 1818 — uses dwarves, and specifically references “diminutive beings” of the mythological variety.

While the OED doesn’t list dwarves as an acceptable plural form, AHD5 lists both dwarfs and dwarves as plural forms, with no additional comment and no recommended preference. Merriam-Webster also lists both plural forms, but gives priority to dwarfs. It’s interesting, at least to me, that none of the three major online dictionaries make any reference at all to Tolkien’s work. This appears to be a major oversight, especially for AHD and MW, which choose to list dwarves as an acceptable plural form…yet offer no actual examples to support this option. A citation of Tolkien would be a natural, even for OED, which often seems to take pride in referencing the works of British authors when new or unusual word coinages are involved.

I wondered where the Tolkien origin story might have come from. As a storyteller, I think it works well. It’s full of plausible details: the shortage of earlier references, the suggestion that he used dwarves with the -ves plural to echo the elves plural of elf, the further suggestion that Tolkien used the -ves plural to distinguish his fantasy race from humans of small stature, the fact that Tolkien was an accomplished philologist and had a deep knowledge of Anglo-Saxon words and their origins. It seems to add up.

But there are two incredibly strong pieces of information that go against this conclusion. First is that older citation (from 1818) noted in OED. If this variant spelling existed a century before Tolkien used it, he couldn’t very well have created it. Second, and with more weight and importance, is what Tolkien himself had to say on the matter. In correspondence, and with some apparent embarrassment, he admits dwarves to be a misspelling. Here’s his confession in full (bold highlights mine):

No reviewer (that I have seen), although all have carefully used the correct dwarfs themselves, has commented on the fact (which I only became conscious of through reviews) that I use throughout the ‘incorrect’ plural dwarves. I am afraid it is just a piece of private bad grammar, rather shocking in a philologist; but I shall have to go on with it. Perhaps my dwarf – since he and the Gnome are only translations into approximate equivalents of creatures with different names and rather different functions in their own world – may be allowed a peculiar plural. The real ‘historical’ plural of dwarf (like teeth of tooth) is dwarrows, anyway: rather a nice word, but a bit too archaic. Still I rather wish I had used the word dwarrow.

(This is quoted from The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, published by Mariner books. An electronic version is available here. The relevant passage is in letter 17, page 29 of the PDF file.)

As far as I’m concerned, that settles it. When an author states his position as clearly as this, there’s no room left for argument. It does make one wonder, however: what would the world of fantasy literature have looked like if Tolkien had in fact used the Middle English dwarrow instead?

While this turns the page on the etymological origin of Tolkien’s dwarves, there’s still more worth mentioning. Curiously, at least one reliable source notes that use of the word dwarf to refer to mythological little creatures (as opposed to small humans) was a purely German phenomenon until the late 18th century: the English used other words instead (this is perhaps why Tolkien mentions gnomes in the passage above).

And although Tolkien referred to the spelling dwarves as his “private bad grammar” that personal misspelling quirk might not have been quite as personal as he believed. That 1818 reference cited above by the OED? A little more than a century later, even Tolkien considered dwarves to be a spelling error, and as a linguist he would have known better than just about anyone. Historically, English spelling has been very fluid, and the 1818 citation seems likely to have been just another variant (…a polite way to say “an error”). It fits the same sort of pattern as when people write the plural of roof as rooves, beef as beeves, and staffs as staves. All three of those -ves plural forms are frowned upon (and I recommend against using them except in very special circumstances), but each is recognized as a variant spelling.

Has dwarves gained any traction in the language relative to dwarfs since Tolkien admitted it as an error, in October, 1937? Yes and no.

Obviously, if it hadn’t made inroads at all, you wouldn’t be reading this post on the topic. The plural would always be dwarfs and no one would think otherwise. Two of the three most useful style guides (Chicago is silent on the issue) stick with dwarfs. AP is simple and direct: “Plural is dwarfs.” GMAU recognizes dwarves as “a variant form,” but adds “Walt Disney got it right.” Garner goes on to suggest that dwarves for dwarfs is at Stage 3 of their language change index: widespread, but avoided in careful usage. The -fs form is best adopted, especially in technical contexts (physical dwarfs, botanical dwarfs, astronomical dwarfs).

Just how widespread is use of the dwarves form? Google Ngrams provides some interesting data.

In a matter of seconds, I was able to find a citation that predates OED’s 1818 first use (if only by a mere 10 years). There’s a small but non-zero use of the -ves plural across the 19th century, almost always in the context of mythological dwarves (although these are often also called dwarfs). The -ves plural spelling does, on occasion, show up in medical literature during that period. But dwarfs is clearly the standard usage, favored by more than 100 to 1 over dwarves in most years. Around 1937, as one might expect, the variant spelling sees a spike in use — quadrupling in frequency — but for less than a decade, after which it slumbers once more.

But around the time of the publication of The Lord of the Rings (1954), it reawakens. After a very slow increase, by the early 1980s about 1 in 10 print uses of the plural spell it dwarves, and that level holds steady for about 20 years. Around the time of the first Peter Jackson film, the use of dwarves increases again and may still be on the rise today: in 2008 (the most recent year searchable with ngrams), just over one-third of uses adopt the -ves spelling.

Interestingly, dwarfs does not seem to be losing ground to dwarves. Despite the uptick in use of the -ves form, absolute usage of the -fs form has held roughly steady over the past century, with only a modest decline.

And that is the answer to this post’s title question — When is a dwarf not a dwarf? When you’re dealing with more than one, in a fantasy setting. In that case, spell it dwarves if you prefer, but in any other context it’s best to spell it dwarfs.

= = = = =

A few notes to wrap up, two germane to this topic, one not, and one to explain the image.

Related: (1) I’m well aware that there’s a potential problem with singular-plural agreement in the way the title of this post relates to the actual content. Lighten up! It’s a blog post, not the authoritative stone tablet on how to use the language.
(2) It’s worth a quick mention that the WordPress spellchecker doesn’t like dwarves at all. Every use gets flagged in their text editor. You earn points for spelling and consistency, guys.

Unrelated: If you’re a regular reader and sometimes participate in the “Spot the Error” contest, please note that I’ve suspended it, at least temporarily. An explanation is located here.

The image: And finally, choosing to avoid images of real dwarfs and potentially copyrighted images of Tolkien dwarves altogether, the image used for this post is a pretty picture of a Japanese maple bonsai tree, a dwarf of a completely different kind.

As always, thanks for reading, and I hope you’ll be back! I’ve got a lot of spelling and usage points on my mind (“so-called,” “flying colors,” “epicenter“) and hope to post about them soon.

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About thebettereditor

Chris holds a BA degree in history from the University of Virginia and a Master of Fine Arts (MFA) Degree in writing from the University of Southern Maine (Stonecoast). He has worked extensively with professional and semi-professional writers and enthusiastic amateurs for about 20 years. He has several years experience in scientific publishing, but has also worked in information technology, insurance, health care, and education (he taught writing at the university level for a number of years). Since 2011, he's also specialized in helping small business meet their writing and editing needs on a budget.
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