c. 1600, in reference to the Netherlands, Flanders, and Frisia, "boggy or marshy soil," especially a tract of marshy land which as been reclaimed and brought under cultivation, from Dutch polder, from Middle Dutch polre, related to East Frisian poller, polder, words of unknown origin.
"low, hollow place, often boggy," 1580s, special use of Scottish swaill "low, hollow place," or East Anglian dialectal swale "shady place" (mid-15c.); both probably from Old Norse svalr "cool," from Proto-Germanic *swalaz. A local word in England, in U.S. given broad application, especially to the lower tracts of the prairie and recently to landscaping features in suburban developments.
legendary small town, 1846, originally the name of a small group of Indians who lived around the Podunk River in Connecticut; the tribe name is in colonial records from 1656 (as Potunck), from southern New England Algonquian (Mohegan or Massachusetts) Potunk, probably from pautaunke, from pot- "to sink" + locative suffix -unk, thus "a boggy place." Its popularity as the name of a typical (if mythical) U.S. small town dates from a series of witty "Letters from Podunk" which ran in the "Buffalo Daily National Pilot" newspaper beginning Jan. 5, 1846.
1570s, "soft, wet, boggy land; a marsh," from obsolete quag "bog, marsh" + mire (n.). Early spellings or related forms include quamyre (1550s), quabmire (1590s), quadmire (c. 1600), quavemire (1520s), qualmire.
The extended sense of "difficult situation, inescapable bad position" is recorded by 1766; but this seems to have been not in common use in much of 19c. (absent in "Century Dictionary," 1897, which does, however, have a verb, marked "rare," meaning "to entangle or sink in or as in a quagmire"). It revived in a narrower sense in American English in reference to stalled military actions, 1965, with reference to the U.S. war in Vietnam (popularized in the book title "The Making of a Quagmire" by David Halberstam).
the meanings "mass of small, cryptogamous, herbaceous plants growing together" and "bog, peat-bog" are the same word: Old English meos "moss plant" and mos "bog;" both are from Proto-Germanic *musan (source also of Old High German mios, Danish mos, German Moos), also in part from Old Norse mosi "moss, bog," and Medieval Latin mossa "moss," from the same Germanic source.
These are from PIE *meus- "damp," with derivatives referring to swamps and swamp vegetation (source also of Latin muscus "moss," Lithuanian mūsai "mold, mildew," Old Church Slavonic muchu "moss"). The Germanic languages have the word in both senses, which is natural because moss is the characteristic plant of boggy places. It is impossible to say which sense is original. The proverb that a rolling stone gathers no moss is suggested from 14c.:
Selden Moseþ þe Marbelston þat men ofte treden. ["Piers Plowman," 1362]
Moss-agate "agate stone with moss-like dendrite forms (caused by metallic oxides)" is from 1790. Scott (1805) revived 17c. moss-trooper "freebooter infesting Scottish border marshes" (compare bog-trotter).
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.