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According to the sources I’ve found (for example this one), “Frodo” comes from the Old English “fród”, meaning wise. (Apparently in “Hobbit Language” Frodo’s name is “Maura”, but I don’t know if this has significance here or not.)

And “Samwise” comes from the Old English word, well… “samwise”… meaning “half-wit” or “unwise”.

Here are examples of each word in Old English:

þú eart mægenes strang ond on móde fród wís wordcwida
“you are strong in power and wise in your heart, judicious word-speaker”
Beowulf

Wenað samwise þæt hi on ðis lænan mægen life findan soða gesælða.
“The unwise think they can find true joy in this transitory life.”
The Meters of Boethius

Clearly, their names are exact opposites, but I don’t remember Frodo being particularly wise nor Sam being particularly unwise (but I only saw the movies :P).

Why did Tolkien choose these names?

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    Unfortunately, I think it points to the belief by Tolkien, (commonly held, at the time, but changing), that your station in life was either determined by or determines your mental faculties. So Frodo, who was "high-born" (for a Hobbit), was wise, and Sam was low-born, and thus only a half-wit. Sam was called out on a few occasions for making poor decisions or being too rash. To be fair, though, Sam's fierce loyalty and tenacity, not to mention his creativity and domestic abilities were also noted by the Author and other characters. – Quasi_Stomach Mar 28 '18 at 17:24
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    @Quasi_Stomach The professor didn't use the wise/wit to mean intelligent or stupid, but experienced or not. – Edlothiad Mar 28 '18 at 17:34
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    i think 'samwise' stands for 'simple' (unrefined, unsophisticated, less educated) rather than for 'halfwit'. acc to a Tolkien quote from wikipedia JRRT considered Sam frodo's servant : "For Frodo the Halfling, it is said, at the bidding of Mithrandir took on himself the burden, and alone with his servant he passed through peril and darkness and came at last in Sauron's despite even to Mount Doom..." a person originally doing simple, menial tasks which not require much skill or talent – user68762 Mar 28 '18 at 17:45
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    @Edlothiad While Sam is definitely younger, it's hard to imagine that good, simple Frodo was actually more experienced than Sam. In fact, with people to take care of and do for Frodo, he seems like the one most likely to have missed out on World experiences. I don't think the names were meant to describe the characters themselves as much as to represent names that might have actually been given to them by their respective parents. Frodo's parents had a proud lineage and greater education. Sam's Gaffer "knew his place" and named his son for his station. – Quasi_Stomach Mar 28 '18 at 18:02
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    @Quasi_Stomach while you're welcome to think that the quotes from Tolkien's letters would suggest otherwise. You seem to have this idea of Tolkien's Shire being identical to Victorian society, but the Bagginses were well travelled as compared to the Gamgees, and with family across the Brandybuck, the Bagginses would travel and walk while Sam had never gone far from Bag End, even if he may have been less "sheltered". – Edlothiad Mar 28 '18 at 18:07
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I have gathered some information but this answer will change in time.

Tolkien did indeed intend the name Samwise to be "half-wit"

Various times throughout his letters Tolkien discusses the name of Samwise, however, while he did intend to name him the "half-wit" Tolkien had a lot of love for the character.

Sam by the way is an abbreviation not of Samuel but of Samwise (The Old E. for Half-wit), as is his father’s name the Gaffer (Ham) for O.E. Hamfast or Stayathome. Hobbits of that class have very Saxon names as a rule....
Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien - Letter #72

this jewel among the hobbits
Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien - Letter #76

Sam is meant to be lovable and laughable.......He is a more representative Hobbit than any others that we see much of: and he has consequently a stronger ingredient of that quality which even some hobbits found at times hard to bear: a vulgarity- by which I do not mean ’down-to-earthiness’- a mental myopia which is proud of itself, a smugness(in varying degrees) and cocksuredness, and a readiness to measure and sum up all things from a limited experience, largely enshrined in sententious traditional ’wisdom’.............Sam is cocksure, and deep down a little conceited; but his conceit is transformed by his devotion for Frodo.
Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien - Letter #246

Tolkien shows great appreciation of the character and while the name does indeed mean "half-wit" I don't believe he intended us to think he though of Sam as stupid, but instead as someone who came from "limited experience". Sam was a much more sympathetic character in Tolkien's mind as opposed to Frodo, and felt in his mind was the far more genuine hobbit:

Sam is the most closely drawn character, the successor to Bilbo of the first book, the genuine hobbit. Frodo will naturally become too ennobled and rarerified by the achievement of the great Quest, and will pass West with all the great figures; but S. will settle down to the Shire and gardens and inns.
Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien - Letter #93

Warning the Frodo section is less complete

Tolkien was again aware the Frodo was from the germanic fród

While intended the Frodo be from the germanic roots to mean "wise by experience" it had further connotations

Frodo is a real name from the Germanic tradition. Its Old English form was Fróda. Its obvious connexion is with the old word fród meaning etymologically 'wise by experience', but it had mythological connexions with legends of the Golden Age in the North.
Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien - Letter #168

Frodo's experienced is shown by his travelling nature in his youth. He had adventured with his two "wealthier" friends, Peregrin and Meriadoc, in his youth.

Frodo went tramping all over the Shire with them; but more often he wandered by himself, and to the amazement of sensible folk he was sometimes seen far from home walking in the hills and woods under the starlight. Merry and Pippin suspected that he visited the Elves at times, as Bilbo had done.
The Fellowship of the Ring - Book 1, Chapter 2: The Shadow of the Past

  • 3
    Well, Tolkien was a professor of Anglo-Saxon, so one would hope he knew what he was doing! I can confirm some of this answer with my own sources. For frod, The Dictionary of Old English A-H has the following definition: "of people / anthropomorphized creatures and plants: old, aged; worthy of veneration / respect on account of age / experience / wisdom". So, part of the question becomes "why was Frodo considered experienced"? I think that he was really only experienced after the journey. – Laurel Mar 28 '18 at 17:59
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    @Laurel Frodo had travelled aplenty before his journey with the ring. – Edlothiad Mar 28 '18 at 18:00
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    @Edlothiad If your contention is that Frodo was experienced and well-traveled, I think we need to see evidence of that. I don't get that from the Letters quote. – Quasi_Stomach Mar 28 '18 at 18:15
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    @Edlothiad "Frodo went tramping all over the Shire with them; but more often he wandered by himself, and to the amazement of sensible folk he was sometimes seen far from home walking in the hills and woods under the starlight. Merry and Pippin suspected that he visited the Elves at times, as Bilbo had done." -- Fellowship of the Ring, Chapter 2 – Matt Gutting Mar 28 '18 at 18:53
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    @Blackwood I never claimed that his parents named Frodo for his existing experience, just that when building the world that Tolkien did, he gave characters names that would fit their station -- and he gets literary points for names that might have had meaning to the characters, besides. Just as my parents named me and my brothers "prophetically" hoping we would embody the meaning of our Hebrew names, so might parents in the Shire have given names that they hoped or thought might properly describe their children. And, yes, even the Gaffer. – Quasi_Stomach Mar 28 '18 at 19:44

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