The beards of the Istari Gandalf and Saruman¹ feature prominently in Tolkien's works, while elves are not able to grow beards². Despite this discrepancy which is easy to spot for Men, they believed that the Istari were elves or very old and wise men. This is even reflected in on of their names: "Gandlaf" is Westron for "elf of the staff" or "Wand elf"³.

How is this discrepancy explained? Since elves do not have beards, how could persons with large and thick beards be considered elvish?

¹ I leave the other three Istari out of this, since so little is known about them.

² As an aside: Is there any elf that does have a beard?

³ http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Istari

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    Cirdan the Shipwright was the only elf to ever grow a beard – childcat15 Nov 22 '13 at 11:31
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    Leaving aside the great answer below, why would uneducated, lice-ridden early Feudal people with no education know whether Elves can or can not grow beards? None of them had access to Wikia, and most couldn't read :) – DVK-on-Ahch-To Nov 22 '13 at 15:09
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    Istari were no elves. They were Maiar sent to Middle Earth by the Valar. But the humans could not have known that. Yet they appeared to be immortals so that made them "elves" despite appearance - they looked more like humans actually – AZ. Nov 22 '13 at 16:47

It could be an honest mistake born of ignorance.

Since Men don't know much about elves, they may think the beards are a sign of the great age and wisdom of the Istari. Elves are weird and wild, why shouldn't the oldest and wisest of them have beards? (See below: they actually can!)

Remember, we're used to having access to all the information--those living in Middle-Earth often had only rumor and old stories to based their conjecture on. Since Gandalf did live among the elves for a while (and it's hinted he looked like an elf at least sometimes), this is not an unreasonable conclusion to reach.

"Elf" may be honorary or symbolic or both.

Elves are associated with magic so it makes sense for powerful wizards whose origin is unknown to be associated with elves in the stories and titles given to them by ignorant Men.

Perhaps it's just a symbolic title, using "elf" as a way of saying "old and wise and magic and scary," and nobody ever actually thought Gandalf was literally an elf. (Did anyone think Grima actually had a worm for a tongue, or that Saruman looked like Rainbow Dash?)

An aside about sources, since you're asking on etymological grounds.

The name "Gandalf" comes from the oldest written source of real-life Nordic mythology, the Eddas, where he is described is both an elf and a dwarf. His name really is derived from the words for "magic staff" and "elf." Tolkien may have given him these titles in Middle-Earth as well as an in-joke for students of Nordic mythology. (In Nordic mythology, "elf" basically meant "non-god but non-human magic-user" and "dwarf" often just meant a kind of elf that wielded a particular kind of magic.)

As for elves with beards in canon...

Elves rarely grow beards, but they can in their later lives.

There are a few examples of elves with beards (Círdan, Mahtan, and perhaps Tinfang Gelion). They are all older elves, mostly in the third cycle of their lives, so you could spend a human lifetime with an elf and never see him with stubble if he's not old enough yet. It would also be reasonable to think that older elves might shave to appear younger.

The text saying otherwise may be deliberately wrong.

Most of Tolkien's works are written as in-universe retellings of stories, and have flaws and inaccuracies because of this.

So when the narrator of The Hobbit states that elves can't grow beards, it could be a simplification or a mistake of the narrator. Since elves don't grow beards very often--and can't unless they're pretty old--it'd be reasonable for someone who wasn't extremely familiar with elves to assume none of them can.

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    Well, this answer is just plain awesome! Thanks a lot. – mort Nov 22 '13 at 12:46
  • I might mention in the etymology section that "gand" is cognate to "wand" so people can see the connection. – SirTechSpec Aug 28 '16 at 3:58

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