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word fight

In regard to my critique of an article on Tolkien, various posters in the comments section are trying to convince me that “fight” is a perfectly reasonable term to describe the ornate and scholarly word contest that Gandalf and Saruman have in Tolkien’s book.

Among them is the author of the article, who points out that “argument” is used to define “fight” in his dictionary. Leaving aside the fact that even “argument” is not really the best choice of word to describe the scene, it’s a fallacy to say that a word used to define another word in the dictionary must have exactly the same meaning. More likely, they overlap over parts of their meanings. It’s true that I can find “argument” used to define “fight” in a dictionary, but in the same dictionary I find “debate” used to define “argument” and “discussion” used to define “debate,” and by that point, I think, we’ve left “fight” far behind, so I don’t think much of the dictionary-definition shuffle as a method of shifting your word’s meaning.

“Fight” is especially ill-chosen to describe the scene in the book when it’s a perfect term to describe the absurd wizard-fu battle in the movie. It makes it look as if you’re remembering the movie instead of the book. And when, of all the possible words to describe that scene in the book, you choose this one, is leads inevitably to the conclusion that the movie has affected your memory of the book.

What do you think?

About the Author: David Bratman

David Bratman is co-editor of Tolkien Studies: An Annual Scholarly Review, and former editor of Mythprint, the bulletin of The Mythopoeic Society. He likes to write about Tolkienian biography and bibliography.


  • TroelsForchhammer

    I do not feel qualified to pass verdict on English usage – and much less on American vernacular usage, but since this first cropped up, I have re-read the passage in question a couple of times, and have investigated the relevant definitions in various on-line dictionaries.

    There is, in my understanding, no aggression between Saruman and Gandalf in the pertinent passage, and only very little indication of anger. At first Gandalf’s use of Saruman’s title, ‘the White’, “seems” to anger Saruman, and at the climax of this discussion, Saruman is “cold now and perilous”. In between these, there is Saruman’s scorn for Radagast, and their ethical / intellectual exchange of views, which is all very quiet and gentlemanly.

    Personally, I would never use the word “fight” to describe this – to me, this is not even a quarrel. However, I wouldn’t care to judge whether the word would be an appropriate description of this scene in a vernacular where “hating” seems to be synonymous with “not accepting the perfection of something I love very much” …

  • Nelson Goering

    I’m completely with Kakaes with this one, and thought he was very clear in context. Talking about dictionary definition-chains is a bit beside the point. I doubt Kakaes looked in the dictionary beforehand and carefully selected ‘fight’ as a synonym for ‘argument’ or ‘debate’ – he was just using this word in a very normal, if rather colloquial sense. This sense is in turn reflected in any good modern dictionary (the kind that deals with real usages, rather than trying to prescribe usage). The English language is big, and not everyone grants every word the same semantic range, but ‘fight’ is in general a fine synonym for ‘argument’ or ‘debate’ for many native speakers.

    Is this the kind of ‘argument’ or ‘debate’ that could be fairly described as a ‘fight’ by such speakers? I think so. I saw nothing peculiar in Kakaes’s phrasing myself, and reflecting further I think he’s characterized the scene very well. Note that we needn’t have people shouting, or spittle flying entering into it. Gentlemanliness, or lack thereof, isn’t relevant. The main things is whether this was a conversation (yes) between people with strongly opposing viewpoints (yes) who are emotionally invested in the outcome of the debate (yes). For bonus points, this conversation sees two former friends part as committed enemies.

    (As a further note, I think there’s quite a lot of emotion in the scene, on both parts. But it’s buried under superficially courteous words and conduct. Read it like you’d read a conversation in Germanic literature, and you get the sense that they’re being extraordinarily blunt and frankly aggressive – especially Saruman.)