Talk to Books is a new Google service that tries to show book snippets directly relevant to your well-formulated query question.

I rather unfairly tried it with a fiendish question: When did J.R.R. Tolkien discover the word earendel? (without quote marks). None of the results were accurate, in contrast to Google Books where the top three results were accurate / useful / authoritative, as was the seventh result. Not only that, but the snippets were also more or less spot on.

It’s a tricky question, not only because lower-case earendel is Anglo-Saxon. There’s that use, and then there’s also the capitalised name Eärendil. Which is the name of the character Tolkien developed, after being inspired by the Anglo-Saxon word and its very complex clusters of meanings and associations. The other problem is that no-one knows exactly when in the first half of 1913 he found the word, and exactly where he found it — in a dictionary, a commentary or a footnote, or was he told about it by a tutor at Exeter College (he was having personal tuition with some of the great names in word-lore), or was his first encounter with the word while actually reading Crist in Old English? The word is the key root-hole for his work, from which the seed of his great legendarium later arose.

So, kudos to Google Books for getting it right in a useful way. Google’s Talk to Books on the other hand seems to have semantically smushed the words and ignored earendel. The name-authority was accurate, but it seemed to assume I just wanted something about Tolkien and his use of words in general, and tried a scattergun approach…

1. His fictional use of dwarf-names in the Icelandic Dvergatal (‘Dwarf table’), found in the Voluspa.
2. His early work on writing entries for the Oxford English Dictionary.
2. His mid-career attitude to the Celtic languages.
4. His entry for “Walrus” in the Oxford English Dictionary.
5. His early and reluctant abandonment of the worn-out word ‘fairy’ in his early poetry and invented-languages, in favour of ‘elf’.

There was no connection made between earendel and Eärendil, which suggests that perhaps Talk to Books might usefully add a semantic sub-system devoted to character-names, and their variants and mis-spellings?