Jun 12

The plural of dwarf

In her new blog, Ruth asks, “Is it really spelled dwarfs? That just doesn’t sound/look right to me.” This seems like a simple question, and I thought I knew the answer. But when I searched the Web for confirmation, I found that this simple question opens a 55-gallon drum of worms.
The short answer is that “dwarfs” was the plural form of “dwarf”, until J.R.R. Tolkien came along. He didn’t like it, and in The Hobbit, he used “dwarves” instead. The Hobbit and its sequel, The Lord of the Rings, were so popular and influential that Tolkien’s preferred plural was imprinted in the minds of his readers, and was almost universally adopted by the fantasy fiction authors who came after him. (One notable exception is C.S. Lewis, who used “dwarfs” in his Chronicles of Narnia.) As a result, “dwarfs” looks odd and even wrong to many people today.
Of course that’s an oversimplification. As Mark Liberman points out in his Language Log essay, both plural forms existed in the early 19th century. Also, the word “dwarf” occurs outside of fairy tales and fantasy; in astronomy, it’s used to describe certains types of stars, such as a white dwarf. And, of course, it’s used in medicine to describe a disorder in which the patient does not grow to full adult stature. In these scientific contexts, the dominant plural form is still “dwarfs”.
But there’s another context in which we have all encountered the word “dwarfs”, and it’s the one that Ruth alluded to in her blog. It’s the movie Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Walt Disney’s first full-length animated feature. By one of those amazing coincidences that frequently crop up in popular culture, Snow White and The Hobbit were both unveiled in the same year: 1937. The dates are so close together (September 21 for The Hobbit, December 21 for Snow White) that it’s clear that neither work was influenced by the other. Snow White was in production for three years, and Tolkien began developing the story that became The Hobbit sometime in the late 1920s.
Disney’s dwarfs do look a lot like Tolkien’s dwarves, and both groups enjoy mining the earth for gems and precious metals. But the similarities pretty much end there. Tolkien’s dwarves, especially as described in the Lord of the Rings books, are grim, ale-guzzling, axe-wielding warriors. Disney’s dwarfs are happy and carefree, whistling while they work. Is one of these depictions more authentic than the other? What does the word “dwarf” even mean in the context of fantasy and folklore? I’ll tackle that question in another post.

Jun 05

We come in peace . . . ZAP!

According to this Science@NASA article, the MESSENGER probe will fly past the planet Venus today on its way to Mercury. As part of the flyby, MESSENGER will fire a laser at Venus. When MESSENGER reaches Mercury in 2011, it will shoot its laser at that planet too.
Is this really a good idea? How are the inhabitants of these planets going to react to unprovoked laser attacks by a probe from Earth? I hope this doesn’t set off an interplanetary war. At least we’re not attacking Mars yet — although the Martians are probably rather annoyed at us anyway, because of . . . well, just watch this video and you’ll understand why.