Middle English setten, from Old English settan (transitive) "cause to sit; make or cause to rest as on a seat; cause to be put, placed, or seated;" also "put in a definite place," also "arrange, fix adjust; fix or appoint (a time) for some affair or transaction," and "cause (thoughts, affections) to dwell on."
This is from Proto-Germanic *(bi)satejanan "to cause to sit, set" (source also of Old Norse setja, Swedish sätta, Old Saxon settian, Old Frisian setta, Dutch zetten, German setzen, Gothic satjan), causative form of PIE *sod-, a variant of the root *sed- (1) "to sit." Also see set (n.2). It has been confused with sit (v.) at least since early 14c.
The intransitive sense of "be seated" is from c. 1200; that of "sink down, descend, decline toward and pass below the horizon" (of the sun, moon, or stars) is by mid-13c., perhaps from similar use of the cognates in Scandinavian languages; figurative use of this is from c. 1600.
Many uses are highly idiomatic, the verb, like put, its nearest equivalent, and do, make, get, etc., having become of almost universal application, and taking its distinctive color from the context. [Century Dictionary]
The sense of "make or cause to do, act, or be; start, bring (something) to a certain state" (on fire, in order, etc.) and that of "mount a gemstone" are attested by mid-13c. That of "determine upon, resolve" is from c. 1300; hence be set against "resisting" (mid-14c.).
The sense of "make a table ready for a meal" is from late 14c.; that of "regulate or adjust by a standard" (of a clock, etc.) is from late 14c. In printing, "to place (types) in the proper order for reading; put into type," 1520s. From c. 1500 as "put words to music." From 1570s as "put (a broken or dislocated bone) in position." In cookery, plastering, etc., "become firm or solid in consistency" by 1736.
To set (one's) heart on (something) is from c. 1300 as "love, be devoted to;" c. 1400 as "have a desire for." To set (one's) mind is from mid-15c.; transitive set (one's mind) to "determine to accomplish" is from late 15c. To set (something) on "incite to attack" (c. 1300) originally was in reference to hounds and game. To set an example is mid-14c. (set (v.) in the sense of "present" is from late Old English). The notion of "fix the value of" is behind old phrases such as set at naught "regard as nothing."
To set out is from c. 1300 as "display (for sale);" to set up shop "commence doing business" is from c. 1400.
1937, coined in the fantasy tales of J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973).
On a blank leaf I scrawled: 'In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.' I did not and do not know why. [Tolkien, letter to W.H. Auden, dated 1955]
The word also turns up in a very long list of folkloric supernatural creatures in the writings of Michael Aislabie Denham (d. 1859) as an aside to his explanation that those born on Christmas Eve cannot see spirits. Denham was an early folklorist who concentrated on Northumberland, Durham, Westmoreland, Cumberland, the Isle of Man, and Scotland. This was printed in volume 2 of "The Denham Tracts" [ed. James Hardy, London: Folklore Society, 1895], a compilation of Denham's scattered publications.
What a happiness this must have been seventy or eighty years ago and upwards, to those chosen few who had the good luck to be born on the eve of this festival of all festivals; when the whole earth was so overrun with ghosts, boggles, bloody-bones, spirits, demons, ignis fatui, brownies, bugbears, black dogs, specters, shellycoats, scarecrows, witches, wizards, barguests, Robin-Goodfellows, hags, night-bats, scrags, breaknecks, fantasms, hobgoblins, hobhoulards, boggy-boes, dobbies, hob-thrusts, fetches, kelpies, warlocks, mock-beggars, mum-pokers, Jemmy-burties, urchins, satyrs, pans, fauns, sirens, tritons, centaurs, calcars, nymphs, imps, incubuses, spoorns, men-in-the-oak, hell-wains, fire-drakes, kit-a-can-sticks, Tom-tumblers, melch-dicks, larrs, kitty-witches, hobby-lanthorns, Dick-a-Tuesdays, Elf-fires, Gyl-burnt-tales, knockers, elves, rawheads, Meg-with-the-wads, old-shocks, ouphs, pad-foots, pixies, pictrees, giants, dwarfs, Tom-pokers, tutgots, snapdragons, sprets, spunks, conjurers, thurses, spurns, tantarrabobs, swaithes, tints, tod-lowries, Jack-in-the-Wads, mormos, changelings, redcaps, yeth-hounds, colt-pixies, Tom-thumbs, black-bugs, boggarts, scar-bugs, shag-foals, hodge-pochers, hob-thrushes, bugs, bull-beggars, bygorns, bolls, caddies, bomen, brags, wraiths, waffs, flay-boggarts, fiends, gallytrots, imps, gytrashes, patches, hob-and-lanthorns, gringes, boguests, bonelesses, Peg-powlers, pucks, fays, kidnappers, gallybeggars, hudskins, nickers, madcaps, trolls, robinets, friars' lanthorns, silkies, cauld-lads, death-hearses, goblins, hob-headlesses, bugaboos, kows, or cowes, nickies, nacks necks, waiths, miffies, buckies, ghouls, sylphs, guests, swarths, freiths, freits, gy-carlins Gyre-carling, pigmies, chittifaces, nixies, Jinny-burnt-tails, dudmen, hell-hounds, dopple-gangers, boggleboes, bogies, redmen, portunes, grants, hobbits, hobgoblins, brown-men, cowies, dunnies, wirrikows, alholdes, mannikins, follets, korreds, lubberkins, cluricauns, kobolds, leprechauns, kors, mares, korreds, puckles korigans, sylvans, succubuses, blackmen, shadows, banshees, lian-hanshees, clabbernappers, Gabriel-hounds, mawkins, doubles, corpse lights or candles, scrats, mahounds, trows, gnomes, sprites, fates, fiends, sibyls, nicknevins, whitewomen, fairies, thrummy-caps, cutties, and nisses, and apparitions of every shape, make, form, fashion, kind and description, that there was not a village in England that had not its own peculiar ghost. Nay, every lone tenement, castle, or mansion-house, which could boast of any antiquity had its bogle, its specter, or its knocker. The churches, churchyards, and crossroads were all haunted. Every green lane had its boulder-stone on which an apparition kept watch at night. Every common had its circle of fairies belonging to it. And there was scarcely a shepherd to be met with who had not seen a spirit!
[Emphasis added] It is curious that the name occurs nowhere else in folklore, and there is no evidence that Tolkien ever saw this. The word also was recorded from 1835 as "a term generally used in Wales to express a quantity made up of four Welsh pecks" [in English court records for Hughes vs. Humphreys, a weights-and-measures case]. Hobbitry attested from 1947.