Words we need: Mathom

As we move, ever so slowly, towards a sustainable society, it is gradually becoming clearer that we in the West just have too much stuff – too many material goods, to be more formal – to be able to achieve long-term balance. ‘Mathom’ is a word which can help us reduce our excessive consumption.

It’s a word which goes all the way back to Anglo-Saxon times and re-entered the language via Tolkien:

“It was a tendency of hobbit-holes to get cluttered up; for which the custom of giving so many birthday-presents was largely responsible. Not, of course, that the birthday-presents were always new; there were one or two old mathoms of forgotten uses that had circulated all around the district…”

— J.R.R. Tolkien, The Fellowship of the Ring, Vol. 1

As Wikia tells us, “Mathom” was the hobbits’ term for anything which they had no use for but were unwilling to throw away. A Tolkien Mathomium has much to say on the real Anglo-Saxon origins of “mathom”, the traditions behind it and the “comic irony” intended by Tolkien who knew exactly what he was doing when he re-made Anglo-Saxon “mathum” into Hobbitish “mathom”. It’s fascinating stuff (for word-nerds, at least) but the modern usage is what we’re really here for. Urban Dictionary defines it well:

Mathom: A regift. A relatively trivial object that has repeatedly been given as a present.  …
[Mathoms] most likely persist because they are slightly too valuable or unusual to dispose of outright or give to Goodwill, yet have such limited use or appeal that few wish to retain them. Modern-day candidates for mathomhood are commonly visible in catalogs for novelty electronics, pop art, junk jewelry, and sports memorabilia, as well as in roadside “local” gift stores.

Elaine St. James, in Simplify Your Life (1994) uses it more positively:

When packing, start with treasures such as vases and art objects (of course, these are now going into the mathom box, […]) … Now, when special occasions arise at which a gift would be appropriate, I search in our closet for a suitable mathom. I’ve also let my friends know that they are free to pass on (or possibly fob off) these “treasures” to someone else whenever appropriate.

I could say more about why and how we should reduce our consumption but Madeleine Somerville has just said most of it for me – starting with the headline, Yes, you recycle. But until you start reducing, you’re still killing the planet –  in the The Guardian so I will finish with a word from one of Tolkien’s contemporaries. It’s better known and perhaps even more important to our future: Enough!


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