In The Hobbit (or at least in my edition, HarperCollins 2011), the word ‘cram’ is italicised wherever it appears. Cram is (as according to Chapter XIII, Not at Home)

biscuitish, keeps good indefinitely, is supposed to be sustaining, and is certainly not entertaining, being in fact very uninteresting except as a chewing exercise. It was made by the Lake-men for long journeys.

My question is, why is it italicised? I know Tolkien capitalised certain things for emphasis, or because they were concepts that deserved capitalisation, like ‘the Wide World’ or ‘the Doom of Man’, but this seems different; it’s not something important, and in this case it’s italicised. Why did Tolkien italicise it?

An example of usage, from the same chapter:

...there they rested for a while and had such a breakfast as they could, chiefly cram and water.

  • 2
    My German copy of LOTR italicizes every Elvish word that appears by itself in an otherwise (translated to) German sentence - I have always assumes that this was to indicate that this was not simply a typo. Now I am really curious what the real reason is, if anyone can find out. Jul 5, 2020 at 6:11
  • 7
    It's usual to italicize foreign words. Maybe cram is not a word in Hobbitish or whatever you call the language the rest of the book was supposed to be translated from? Note that the narrator's parenthetical explanation "If you want to know what cram is . . ." as if the reader might never have heard of it.
    – user14111
    Jul 5, 2020 at 6:55
  • 9
    @user14111 this is very likely the case, Bilbo has encountered something foreign and is highlighting it, much like the German edition highlights the elvish words untranslated. Although in this case both the Hobbits and the Lake-men would be speaking Westron (the common tongue) Edit: In fact The Etymologies state the word is Noldorin in Origin and might very much be exactly as is the case for the German edition
    – Edlothiad
    Jul 5, 2020 at 8:06
  • 1
    cram is a Westron word. Tolkein has "left it untranslated" as there is no English equivalent.
    – OrangeDog
    Jul 23, 2020 at 10:17

1 Answer 1


Italicizing foreign words is a very common practice.


In general, italicize foreign words used in an English text:

  • 4
    Is there evidence Tolkien did this intentionally, possibly other examples from the books?
    – Edlothiad
    Jul 5, 2020 at 15:58
  • 1
    @Edlothiad There's also "talan", "Ýrch", "daro", etc.
    – Eugene
    Jul 26, 2021 at 7:36

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