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In Tolkien's world, there are quite a few "magical" beasts that have proper names: dragons for example, like Smaug. One can assume that their names are known either because their creator was still around at that time (and thus could tell their name) or because the creature can speak (like Smaug).

What about Shelob however? She is said to be the last daughter of Ungoliant, and was in her lair even before Sauron got to Mordor, so her origins are long forgotten. She also doesn't seem to be very talkative. And from her behavior as presented by orcs, it doesn't seem like she would engage in conversations even with them, assuming she could talk.

Yet, we can quote Shagrat in the chapter "The choices of master Samwise":

"But Shelob was on the go."

"Nothing gets by Shelob when she's on the hunt."

How can Shagrat possibly know Shelob's name?

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    I'll answer properly later (if nobody else does first). Shelob made a deal with Gollum (see Shelob's Lair in The Two Towers), so she definitely can communicate in some way. Also remember that the spiders in Mirkwood can talk (Flies & Spiders in The Hobbit). – Ian Thompson Dec 14 '16 at 7:30
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    @isanae There's no reason not to accept the first answer that answers your question adequately. Askers can always switch their acceptance to another answer later, as long as the question is not locked or deleted. – TylerH Dec 14 '16 at 21:57
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    I'm confused. A name is what people call you. Some names are what people call themselves. – galdre Dec 15 '16 at 4:53
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    @galdre OP is basically asking whether "Shelob" is the former or the latter and, if it's the latter, how they found out. – isanae Dec 15 '16 at 5:37
  • @hyde There's not really a need to get another answer to a question once it has an answer that solves it. If you really want to provide an answer to an already-answered question, the existence of an answer shouldn't dissuade you. You can also avoid the issue of missing questions by picking a different view, such as newest. – TylerH Dec 15 '16 at 20:32
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+50

From Letter 144:

Shelob (English representing C.S 'she-lob' = female spider) is a translation of Elvish Ungol 'spider'.

'Shelob' is therefore not, strictly speaking, a name, but rather a description. People aren't calling her by name, they're calling her "the Spider".

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    Can't believe I never caught that before. Bilbo calling the spiders "lazy lob" and the female spider being called "she-lob" – Kevin Dec 14 '16 at 19:14
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    Woah. In the Spanish translation, Shelob is one of the few characters that gets its name translated to actual Spanish. Aragorn is Aragorn, Gollum is Gollum, Ungoliant is Ungoliant... but Shelob is called "Ella Laraña", with "Ella" meaning "She" and "Laraña" being a contraction of "La Araña", i.e. "The (female) Spider". It always bothered me because I didn't see a reason to change a character's name like that... It makes SO MUCH more sense now! – walen Dec 16 '16 at 8:37
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    @walen and, in Portuguese, Laracna. Indeed, makes sense now. =) – OnoSendai Dec 16 '16 at 14:45
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"Shelob" probably wasn't her name

Fun fact, Sam's name is actually Banazîr and his father Ham is Ranugad. Tolkien's stories are meant to be translations of old books into English. He did, however, take certain liberties as to how to translate names.

"Shelob" is a simple compound word containing she, for "female", and lob, an archaic word for "spider", deriving from Old English loppe:

sense of "spider, silkworm" from Proto-Germanic *lubbō, *lubbǭ ‎(“that which hangs or dangles”), from Proto-Indo-European *lep- ‎(“to peel, skin”).

(yuck, so lob and leper seem to have a common origin)

Going from "female spider", we can translate this back into the original Quenya1 (of which there are many forms, but let's take the good old Parmaquesta, the high-elvish form) and you'd get something like Ungoliel. It's rather close to Ungoliantë, but liantë means "shadowy, dark"2, whereas the -iel suffix means female (Tinúviel, etc.)

From there, knowing the original Quenyan, we can come up with the proper English name of She-Spider or the more baroque Fem-Spider.

My assumption therefore is that the original work, passed down through the ages, did not name the spider, but used the name Ungoliel instead. Tolkien did not want to use the uncouth She-Spider and decided to be creative and use Shelob.

As for her real name, it seems to have, unfortunately, been lost. She might never have had one.

1The Lord of the Rings is derived from the Red Book, texts compiled by, among others, Bilbo and Frodo. Strictly speaking, it was written in Westron, the "common speech", but there isn't much information about that language, so I chose Quenya instead.

2The etymology of Ungol and liantë are unclear and have been switched a few times. Ungol was initially "dark", but that obviously wasn't the case in the Lord of the Rings. That would be an awesome new question though.

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    This makes me wish I could vote up or down at most twice, so I could vote this up more than the accepted answer. As it is i shall just vote for this one. – PJTraill Dec 15 '16 at 22:30
  • @PJTraill I think you should vote each answer on its own merit. The accepted answer is clear, concise and informative. – isanae Dec 16 '16 at 5:10
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“Shelob” may be a name of the orcs’ invention

Shelob is what the orcs call her, not necessarily her real or original name.

‘You won’t go again, you say? Curse you, Snaga, you little maggot! If you think I’m so damaged that it’s safe to flout me, you’re mistaken. Come here, and I’ll squeeze your eyes out, like I did to Radbug just now. And when some new lads come, I’ll deal with you: I’ll send you to Shelob.’

Return of the King

Indeed, we know she has names in other languages:

Presently they were under the shadow, and there in the midst of it they saw the opening of a cave. ‘This is the way in,’ said Gollum softly. ‘This is the entrance to the tunnel.’ He did not speak its name: Torech Ungol, Shelob’s Lair.

The Two Towers

Neither of the words in the phrase meaning “Shelob’s Lair” seems to contain the word Shelob, or any derivative thereof. Indeed, one word is “Ungol, ” as in Ungoliant, which is probably the part that means “Shelob.” “Ungol” may even just mean “spider,” but then so might “Shelob.”

It’s also true that the narrator calls her “Shelob.” This should not surprise us, though: the narrator also uses the name “Gandalf,” which is neither what the elves called Gandalf in his earliest days as an Istari, nor his original name as a Maia.

The point is this: Shelob would not need to be capable of communication in order to have a name.

Even if it’s not, Shelob might be able to communicate

The spiders of Mirkwood could communicate in Bilbo’s tale (The Hobbit). Even if we account for dramatic license, Shelob’s progenitor, Ungoliant, was certainly capable of speech (as illustrated in the Silmarillion). Let us not forget that neither Ungoliant nor Shelob was any mere beast: Ungoliant was a spirit of great power, and Shelob was closely descended from her. It’s not suprising that she might be capable of speech, or might have been capable of speech in bygone times when her hunger was not so great.

  • Great answer, but I will accept the other one as it is a definitive proof with reference that Shelob is indeed just "The Spider". – Fatalize Dec 14 '16 at 9:49
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    You seem to me to be making the assumption that "Torech Ungol, Shelob's Lair" is a name and then a translation with your line "Neither of the words in the phrase meaning "Shelob's Lair" [...]" (emphasis mine). To me it reads "Torech Ungol (the name of the place), Shelob's Lair (the description of the place)". Parenthetical citations mine. – TylerH Dec 14 '16 at 22:01
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    There are many faulty etymological assumptions in this answer, making most of the first part useless. 1) "Shelob" isn't a "root", it's an English compound. 2) Shelob means "female spider", Ungol means "spider", Torech Ungol means "[secret] hole of the spider". 3) "Shelob's Lair" is a rough translation of "Torech Ungol" from English to Sindarin. 4) "Shelob" is not in Black Speech, there's like 20 words that exist and they mostly come from the Ring. – isanae Dec 15 '16 at 3:19
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    1) You say Shelob means "spider", but it means "female spider". 2) I can't make any sense out of "Neither of the words in the phrase meaning “Shelob’s Lair” seems to have the root Shelob." 3) Then you mention Black Speech, but I don't understand why. – isanae Dec 15 '16 at 4:36
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    You seem to be saying that because the lair is called Torech Ungol, not Torech Shelob, "Shelob" cannot be her given name. But then you mention Gandalf, are you saying it's not a given name either? Like I said, it's probably just me, but I can't make any sense out of the first part of your answer. – isanae Dec 15 '16 at 4:53
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As described on Shelob's Wikipedia page:

As Tolkien admitted in a letter to his son, Shelob "is of course only 'she + lob'," - lob being an archaic English word for spider, influenced by Old English loppe or "spider". The word is not related to "cob" nor "cobweb". Old English attercoppe (meaning "spider") is derived from atter meaning "poison" and coppe meaning "head"; Tolkien used "attercop" as well as "cob" and "lob" in The Hobbit, where Bilbo Baggins sings songs taunting the giant spiders in Mirkwood: "Attercop, Attercop, Old Tomnoddy" and "Lazy Lob and Crazy Cob".

She is also referred to as "Her Ladyship", but I cannot find the reference at the moment.

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