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Tolkien trailer taught me I don't know how to pronounce Tolkien's name

The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings author was a master of languages, but not all of us are.

Video screenshot by Gael Fashingbauer Cooper/CNET

The new trailer for Tolkien, the upcoming biopic about Lord of the Rings author J.R.R. Tolkien, is a touching, well done movie preview. 

The film stars English actor Nicholas Hoult as Tolkien and English-American actress Lily Collins (yes, singer Phil Collins' daughter) as the author's wife, Edith Tolkien. The trailer sketches out the author's fascination with invented language, his close relationship with a group of four friends, the horrors of World War I, and how all these elements affect Tolkien's acclaimed fiction.

But in addition to convincing me I need to see this movie, the trailer showed me something else: I've been pronouncing J.R.R. Tolkien's last name wrong my entire life.

I somehow was under the impression it was pronounced "Toll-KEY-en," or maybe even "Toll-KIN," and who knows how many times I've said it wrong out loud? But in the preview, and in the tiny clip where Hoult and Collins introduce it, it's clearly pronounced "Toll-KEEN." 

Kindly, Shaun Gunner, chair of The Tolkien Society, didn't laugh at me -- he's heard it all before.

"It is very definitely tol-keen not tol-kin -- as is more common -- or tol-kee-en --which I only hear very occasionally," Gunner said in an email. "The name is of German origin, and in German ie has an ee sound."

Even while Tolkien was alive (he died in 1973), people mangled his name, Gunner says. In a letter to Richard Jeffery collected in The Letters of J.R.R. Tolkien, the author writes that his name is "nearly always" misspelled as "Tolkein" (E before I).

"I do not know why, since it is pronounced by me always (as) keen," he writes.

But maybe you already knew that, just like you know that not all those who wander are lost. Did you also know how to pronounce the author's second middle name? The J.R.R. stands for "John Ronald Reuel," and while "John" and "Ronald" are pretty standard, "Reuel" isn't as simple.

"Reuel is a family name, believed to be a family friend of Tolkien's grandfather," Gunner told me. "It is pronounced ROO-el."

My late German grandmother is somewhere muttering, "Ach du lieber Himmel" at her dumb grandchild. I think that means, "Oh, for the love of heaven," but really, you probably shouldn't ask me.

Tolkien opens in theaters on May 3 in the UK and May 10 in the US, with no Australia release date yet.