Theories of the mark

You are in a thread that began with a review of halfir’s legendary ‘Tom Bombadil: Peeling the Onion‘ and is now investigating J.R.R. Tolkien’s theory of meaning. Recent posts have established that the chalk mark made on the door of Ali Baba in 1001 Nights and the queer sign scratched by Gandalf on the door of Bilbo Baggins are equivalent symbols.

I now offer four hypotheses about the linguistic symbol that is the mark on the door:

  1. It is the true name of the owner.
  2. It is merely an identifying mark, devoid of meaning.
  3. It is a professional title, advertising a selected quality of the owner (he is a burglar).
  4. It points to an indefinable x that is the ‘kernel’ of the character of the owner.

Hypothesis 1 invokes the word magic that halfir discovers in Tom Bombadil (and Le Guin discovered through Ged). In place of Bombadil we have Gandalf, who names Bilbo by his true name with the ‘queer sign’ he scratches on his door. But this hypothesis does not fit the robber marking the door of Ali Baba.

One might perhaps argue the point. Perhaps Morgiana defeated the robber’s scheme because his word magic was weak? Could Bilbo have frustrated Gandalf’s plan if he had seen the mark and made similar marks on the front doors of his neighbours? But in this post I will proceed on the assumption that halfir’s idea of word magic is not applicable in the case of Gandalf’s ‘queer sign.’

Hypothesis 2 is J.S. Mill’s reading of the mark on the door of Ali Baba. As we shall see, he argues that this mark is analogous to a proper name.

Hypothesis 3 is Gloin’s reading of the mark on the door, and as such a reading proposed by the author of The Hobbit.

Hypothesis 4 leads us in a round-about way back to something that looks a little like the word magic of hypothesis 1.

Now, the theories behind both hypotheses 3 and 4 may be found in Otto Jespersen’s Philosophy of Grammar (1924), where they are advanced by way of a criticism of Mill’s theory of proper names (and so, implicitly, Mill’s reading of Ali Baba). In this post I therefore begin with Mill, proceed to Jespersen, and conclude that The Hobbit indeed suggests hypothesis 4 as well as hypothesis 3. We therefore begin to close in on an idea of ‘word magic’ that Tolkien really did play with (in contrast to hypothesis 1).


J.S. Mill says that what the robber intends when he marks the house of Ali Baba with chalk is “in some degree analogous” to the operation we perform when “we impose a proper name.” The analogy is not complete because when we impose a name we do not change the appearance of an object or person but only place a mark, “if I may so speak, upon the idea of the object.” Hence:

A  proper name is but an unmeaning mark which we connect in ours minds with the idea of the object, in order that whenever the mark meets our eyes or occurs to our thoughts, we may think of that individual object.

This is Mill abolishing what eight decades later Ogden and Richards will call ‘word magic.’ Far from capturing someone’s inherent meaning or being (Sparrowhawk-style), the proper name of a person (or thing) is but an arbitrary x – an equivalent of the robber’s chalk mark.


Jespersen (Philosophy of Grammar, 1924)  contests Mill’s claim that proper names denote but do not connote:

In Mill’s terminology, but in absolute contrast to his view, I should venture to say that proper names (as actually used) “connote” the greatest number of attributes.

Jespersen does not contest the validity of Mill’s logical reasoning, only the suggestion that we use proper names in conversation as “unmeaning marks.” Thinking about the use of words in a situation of Speaker and a Hearer, Jespersen begins from the fact that the language of the Speaker cannot capture all the ever-changing complexities of the world and so “moves in abstract words,” the results of selections of qualities that convey “certain more or less fixed points, certain averages.”

In free expression, and when a proper name for a peson or thing is not to hand, the Speaker pieces together substantives (nouns, or common names) and adjectives to convey significant information to the Hearer. Jespersen distinguishes between substantives and adjectives as follows:

substantives are broadly distinguished as having a more special signification, and adjectives as having a more general signification, because the former connote the possession of a complexity of qualities, and the latter the possession of one single quality. (81)

As substantives, hobbit and burglar signify a broad class of things that have many attributes. Used as adjectives, the two words signify just one attribute: respectively, the qualities of hobbitiness and burglariousness. A hobbit-burglar has two distinct significations, depending on which term is taken as the substantive and which as the adjective.

The underlying model is that substantives are bundles of attributes, which is to say of things in the world: substantives are bundles of qualities.

In rare cases, says Jespersen, it may be possible to “arrive at a complete definiton of the notion evoked by the naming of a substantive” by “heaping adjective upon adjective.” But in general “there will always… remain an indefinable x, a kernel which may be thought of as ‘bearer’of the qualities which we may have specified” (79-80).

Jespersen’s idea of a proper name – as we actually use proper names when we speak – is that it is an ideal substantive. The difference between proper names and common names, he says, is “of degree rather than kind” (71). Ultimately, a proper name is a stab at capturing all the qualities (attributes) of a person (or thing) – including the  indefinable x.


Does Jespersen’s Philosophy of Grammar allow word magic in by the back door? Or rather, does he formulate a modern, analytical, theory of word magic? Jespersen certainly does not say so, and his engineering approach to inventing languages (Ido and Novial) lead Tolkien to brand him a ‘food nutritionist’ rather than an artistic ‘cook’ (see A Secret Vice). Nevertheless, just as Barfield fitted a notion of ‘semantic unities’ into Jespersen’s analytical Progress in Language (1891), so I submit Tolkien simply spelled out the magical theory of meaning of a proper name contained in Jespersen’s Philosophy of Grammar.

On proper names, Jespersen writes:

The first time you hear of a person or read his name in a newspaper, he is “a mere name” to you, but the more you hear and see of him the more will the name mean to you. Observe also the way in which your familiarity with a person in a novel grows the farther you read… The meaning or connotation grows along with the growth of your knowledge. (66)

The Hobbit wonderfully illustrates Jespersen’s point. When Gandalf comes along he already knows the name of Bilbo Baggins and, after looking long at him with his wizard’s eye (cf. the Captain and the house in Ali Baba), he sees what Bilbo ‘is about’ and that he will do nicely for the adventure. A first-time reader, however, has to begin with only what the narrator has told us…

… which is quite a lot. Bilbo Baggins is a respectable hobbit, aged 50; the Bagginses are known for their conformity to convention, but his mother’s people, the Tooks, are unconventional (and richer) and Bilbo likely inherited a “queer quality” that was waiting to be outed – cue: Gandalf…

… Yet Bilbo Baggins is a hobbit, and the helpful account of hobbits notwithstanding it would take a wizard as a reader to know that the hobbit who soon answers the door to thirteen dwarves is the same hobbit who later burgles a sleeping dragon and then goes back again to hold a conversation with him.

But by the time we have finished his story we do feel we know what Bilbo Baggins means.

And when we speak of The Hobbit with others who have also fallen under its spell we talk of Bilbo Baggins, and when we do we signify more attributes than we possibly could with any string of  titles – heaping up nameless thief on hobbit burglar and all the riddling-names like barrel-rider by which Bilbo names himself to Smaug.

Indeed, we who have read The Hobbit surely feel that in speaking of Bilbo Baggins we mean (as Bilbo himself might have said) all of his attributes at once, including the invitation to a pipe of tobacco out of doors that follows saying so; and including – mysteriously – an “indefinable x,” the kernel which may be thought of as ‘bearer’ of all Bilbo’s many and marvellous qualities.

But though we know the indefinable x, the queer quality never named in the book (and the suggested referent of the queer sign scratched by a wizard on his front door), can we say what it means?