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From The Hobbit,

The tunnel wound on and on, going fairly but not quite straight into the side of the hill—The Hill, as all the people for many miles round called it—and many little round doors opened out of it, first on one side and then on another.

As I understand, we can refer to any part of a hill below the top but above the foot of the hill as side of the hill. Another word for this is hillside.

I just started reading a translated version of The Hobbit, the one I got several years ago (around the time the LOTR Trilogy was still in theaters), and to my dismay, one of every two or three sentences was mistranslated one way or another in my opinion. But that is not my question here.

My question is about the term shoulder of the hill.

Tolkien's the side of the hill was translated into the shoulder of the hill. Considering other difficulties that arose because the translator's choice (she chose the word "เนินเขา" in Thai for hill--meaning small mountain, but could also mean hillside too), I think it is fair in this case to translate side of the hill as shoulder of the hill. But I still think that side of the hill and shoulder of the hill are not quite the same thing anyway.

But maybe I might be wrong. Maybe, to native speakers, "side of the hill" refers to exactly the same part or the same area of a hill as "shoulder of the hill". I am interested in the meaning and usage of both terms in English. (Please do not mind about the translation, I provide it as background information of my curiosity only.)

Do they refer to the same area? Or do they have subtle differences in meaning?

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    This question appears to be off-topic because it depends on a knowledge of Thai idiom rather than English idiom. It is not the case that side was translated as shoulder -- it was translated as some Thai term which you back-translate into English as shoulder. Only someone fluent in both Thai and English can say whether either translation is the best available in this context. – StoneyB Dec 22 '13 at 14:22
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    I didn't mind the translation. I mentioned it only to provide the background of my curiosity. What I really want to know is that, to native speakers, whether shoulder of a hill is the same thing as side of a hill or not. At first I thought shoulder of the hill might not exist in English, but then I found many of them through a search engine, and it is quite difficult for me to deduce which part of the hill those usages refer to. – Damkerng T. Dec 22 '13 at 14:31
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    "Shoulder of the hill" is not an idiom, but a metaphor; it might be used of any part of a hill which resembles a "shoulder", either in contour or, figuratively, in presenting an obstacle. No word means "exactly the same thing" as any other word; often it does not mean "exactly the same thing" as itself in another context. The only relevant fact here is that Prof. Tolkien wrote "side of the hill", despite every opportunity to say something else - hillside, shoulder of the hill, flank of the hill, or whatever. – StoneyB Dec 22 '13 at 14:40
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    @StoneyB: when we talk about the "shoulder of a road", would you say it is a metaphor as well? I must admit the first time I read "hard shoulder" on a British Motorway, I was puzzled until I could have it explained to me. – Laure Dec 22 '13 at 16:21
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    @Laure That is a metaphor which has become an idiom. If you speak of the road's shoulder today everybody knows what you're talking about, whereas a hill's shoulder has no fixed meaning. – StoneyB Dec 22 '13 at 16:24
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NOAD lists three definitions for shoulder (I've omitted Definition #1, as that is the classic anatomical shoulder):

2 a part of something resembling a shoulder in shape, position, or function : the shoulder of a pulley.
a point at which a steep slope descends from a plateau or highland area : the shoulder of the hill sloped down.
3 a paved strip alongside a road for stopping on in an emergency.

With those definitions in mind (particularly the subdefinition under Def. 2), it seems like shoulder tells a bit more about the hill than side might; specifically, it implies the top of the hill is relatively flat, with a relatively steep slope downward from the top. Depending on their shapes, some hills might not have shoulders.

In regards to the sentence, I think the shoulder of the hill is a more precise area than the side of the hill. Looking at the image below, I there are several hobbit holes in the side of the hill, but only the ones boxed in orange are ones that I would place on the shoulder of the hill, that is, in the area where the slope descends downward from the highland area:

enter image description here

Unless Mr. Baggins lived in one of the lower holes, I wouldn't really call this a "mistranslation" – just a word that is perhaps more detailed than it needs to be.

  • Thank you for your clear explanation. +1 for a great picture that makes it really clear. – Damkerng T. Dec 25 '13 at 15:24

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