Well, these are three adjectives for "something from the elves". But I'm Spanish and in my language there's only one adjective for these (élfico), and I can't understand what the difference is.

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    Which elves are you referring to? Santa, Tolkien, Blizzard...
    – MrHen
    Commented May 5, 2011 at 15:48
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    @MrHen: I hope he means Tolkien's... Or Blizzard's, at least. :D
    – Alenanno
    Commented May 5, 2011 at 15:51
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    @MrHen : There's a linguistic difference among different kinds of elves? Perhaps that's the answer.
    – theist
    Commented May 5, 2011 at 15:55
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    @Theist: Yes, believe it or not. Unfortunately, I do not have the time to go look them up. The answer is essentially, "Find out what the relevant fictional world uses and use that." Elfen/elven/elvish fans can get pretty touchy about their terms.
    – MrHen
    Commented May 5, 2011 at 15:57
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    Note that I don't believe "elfic" is an English word. Were you thinking of "elfin", maybe?
    – Marthaª
    Commented May 5, 2011 at 16:27

6 Answers 6


Okay, here goes: Etymonline's comments on elf reveal usage from the 1550s and stemming from the words elf, ælf, ylf. The plural mentioned there is "elves" which would match the traditional pluralization of lf: shelves; wolves. Unfortunately, there is no word for wolven so that doesn't help us much.

The same site does have an entries for elven:

elven - O.E. ælfen; see elf) [sic] + -en (2). Apparently obsolete until revived by Tolkien.

And elfin:

elfin - 1590s, from elf; first found in Spenser, who may have been thinking of elven but the word also is a proper name in the Arthurian romances (Elphin).

And elfish:

elfish - c.1200, alvisc; see elf + -ish.

Tolkien's usage of elven strongly implies that this is the appropriate term for his elves. The c.1200 usage of elfish seems appropriate for mythological or physical references to elves (his ears are elfish; their attitude is elfish).

(Edit per Martha's comment): That being said, Elvish is also the Tolkien proper term for their group of languages with the prime examples being Quenya and Sindarin.

As far as non-Tolkien usage, Wowpedia consistently uses elven in their article on Elves. Dungeons and Dragons appear to use elven for the language and adjective. Other fictional universes could easily vary. It would be best to check with their experts.

The summary: Elvish for physical attributes or mythological references; elven for Tolkien and most other fictional universes. Elfic is unused in English and not advisable.

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    To me, Elvish means the language of Tolkien's elves, and other Tolkien-wannabe universes' elves (D&D, Dragonlance, etc.). Standard spelled-with-an-f elves are not usually depicted as having their own language, so elfish doesn't really have the language connotation. I still prefer elfin, just to avoid ambiguity.
    – Marthaª
    Commented May 5, 2011 at 17:27
  • @Martha: Good point; added. In random trivia, someone in the circle of friends where I live named their daughter Elfin. I thought it odd.
    – MrHen
    Commented May 5, 2011 at 18:11
  • Poor child. Couldn't the parents at least have spelled it as Elphin?
    – Marthaª
    Commented May 5, 2011 at 19:12
  • Thanks!. Sorry about the "Elfic" stuff, a bit more of research (googling) about the word reveal that many of the ocurrences of that word were from hispanic sources. Perhaps is some kind of miss concept deeply fixed on spanish minds. But I didn't know elfin either!
    – theist
    Commented May 6, 2011 at 6:09
  • I don't think your source for D&D is very good---a new question on the RPG stack exchange has a very well-cited answer for D&D saying that, in the D&D world, elvish is the language, elven is the adjective. Commented Jul 9, 2019 at 20:21

The spelling with 'v' for dwarves and elves is from Tolkien.

I suspect (but am not remotely geeky enough to know) that he used the different spelling to give his imaginations a distinct identity compared to Santa's little helpers.

  • Your avatar is cut from an xkcd cartoon, you're pretty geeky ;-) Commented May 5, 2011 at 16:18
  • But not enough to read The Silmarillion! Interestingly there is a very strong correlation between this site and stackoverflow - of all the non-computer SE sites this one has the largest population of programmers
    – mgb
    Commented May 5, 2011 at 16:27
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    programmers are notoriously picky about languages. Both kinds. Commented May 5, 2011 at 16:28
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    @TimLymington - although the PC term is probably BORG (Barbarian Of Restricted Growth)
    – mgb
    Commented Jul 28, 2011 at 15:55
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    @tchrist - But the popular usage is due to Tolkien. He deliberately used old english and anglo-saxon versions -= that was rather the point of writing the stuff,.
    – mgb
    Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 4:00

I think the two are commonly used interchangeably, but I think this is the difference.

If something is elfin it is "of, or relating to or made by an elf"

These shoes are elfin.

Something is elfish if it has characteristics of an elf.

Tom is short, and very mischievous. He is elfish.

  • Not to be confused with Tom keeping everything for himself, or Tom the crab ;-) Commented May 5, 2011 at 17:20
  • Tom is arguably Maiarish. Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 23:54

elfish/elvish use the common general adjective suffix -ish

I would recommend using either elfish or elvish as the corresponding adjective to elf/elves in general or if you’re uncertain. These words are formed with the common English adjectival suffix -ish which has a quite general meaning: they can mean “of an elf,” “like an elf,” “of elves.” So it’s hard to go wrong with one of them. (Using “f” or “v” doesn’t make a difference in meaning, only a slight difference in connotation: “elvish” is probably more commonly with “Lord of the Rings” or “Dungeons and Dragons” elves, while “elfish” may be more commonly used in contexts like “Santa’s elves.” Also, "elvish" may sound silly to some people due to the similarity to the name "Elvis.")

don't use elfic

As others have mentioned, “elfic" is basically never used in English. Using it would seem like an error caused by trying to translate the word directly from Spanish élfico.

elfin ususally has connotation of "otherworldly" or 'diminutive"

The adjective elfin is fairly common, but there are some nuances to its use. Applied to real people, it usually means “fine-featured,” probably with some kind of otherworldly appearance. In fantasy contexts, elfin can also be used as an adjective that is basically synonymous to elfish/elvish.

elven: originally a noun, later reinterpreted a an adjective

As other answers have mentioned, "elven" seems to have been popularized by Tolkien. The etymology and the way he used it make me a bit leery of using it as an adjective, but that’s just my opinion. It is commonly used as such in much of modern fantasy literature. Since it is associated with fantasy literature, it might seem a bit odd to use it in relation to "Santa's elves".

The Oxford English Dictionary entry for elven says it is a noun from Old English ælfen, ęlfen that was originally a femine form of the word “elf,” but later used to refer to any elf in a gender-neutral fashion. It says it is used in the works of J. R. R. Tolkien in the following ways: as a combining element that is appositive (the OED’s example: elven-kin) or attributive (the OED’s examples: elven-king, elven-tongue; elven-wise). So basically, “Tokien” used “elven-” as an archaic element for forming compound words with an appropriate feel for his fantasy.

There seems to have been some conflation of these compound words with sequences of adjective + noun, giving rise to the use of elven as an adjective.

Interestingly, the -en suffix of the re-analyzed adjective elven has also been applied now to at least one other word: modern fantasy uses the adjective dwarven, derived from dwarf/dwarves, as an alternative to dwarfish/dwarvish. I asked a question about the history of dwarven and it seems the first known use in a published text was in 1976, in the Greyhawk “Dungeons and Dragons” supplement; the form seems to have also arisen independently in some works of JRR Tolkien that were written earlier but not published until 1984 in The Book of Lost Tales, Volume II.


  • Don't use "elvic".

  • There is no big difference in meaning between elfish, elvish, elfin, elven. Any can be used for the general meaning "somehow related to elves."

  • Elfin is best if you're describing a real person and you want to convey that the person has a delicate, otherworldly look. E.g. if you're describing the face of someone who is not literally an elf, "elfin face" is better than "elfish face," and much better than "elvish face" or "elven face."

  • Elfish is probably not the best choice if you're talking about "Lord of the Rings" or "Dungeons and Dragons" style elves. E.g. to express the idea of "magic of the elves," it sounds better to say "elfin magic," "elvish magic," or "elven magic," and it doesn't sound as good to say "elfish magic."

  • Elven is probably not the best choice if you're talking about Santa's elves.

  • Old English ælfen was mandatorily pronounced [ˈælven] with [v] never [f] there. The spelling was immaterial: all fricatives used the corresponding voiced allophone between vowels or voiced consonants. Tolkien knowing this also despised the diminutive Tinkerbell connotations of the Modern English -in suffix seen in elfin as a latter-day corruption and misunderstanding of older and nobler tales such as those of the Norse Ljósálfar of Álfheimr (the “Light-elves of Elf-home”), and so was ever careful to spell elves, elven, elvish “phonetically”. Elf, elves; oaf, oaves share an origin.
    – tchrist
    Commented Mar 4, 2017 at 20:09
  • The Old English plural of ælf [ælf] was apparently ylfe [ylve], which is not the normal i-mutation; normally /ae/ i-mutates to /e/ while /u/ i-mutates to /y/. It is possible that the female form ælfen, ęlfen represents the more normal i-mutation for that vowel and so elven is therefore simply the “phonetic” spelling.
    – tchrist
    Commented Mar 4, 2017 at 20:12
  • @tchrist: It looks like "ylfe" shows a West Saxon change of ie > y, which seems a bit weird to me (where does the rounding come from?). Another Wikipedia article suggests that the "unstable i" represented by "y" in later West Saxon manuscripts was maybe just /i/.
    – herisson
    Commented Mar 4, 2017 at 20:21

I don't think there is a word, elfic. You may be referring to the Old English (OE) ælfisc.

The words elfen, elfin, and elven are all spelling variations of the same word and when used as an adjective (or noun), can be swapped at will with no loss of meaning.

The root word is elf (from OE ælf), plural is elves. (Mark the f to v!)

After that, it gets twisted.

From OE, the original adjective was elfish (OE ælfisc).

In OE there was also elfen (plural was elfenne) ... a female elf, a nymph. That morphed in an adjective in Middle English with the original sense of feminine, child-like. It was also spelled elfin and elven.

During this time we also see the 'n' drop and a female elf is an elfe ... with the plural of elfen! Confused yet?

Naturally, if you have elfe, there is a spelling variation of elve (f to v)... with the plural of elven.

There are also compounds like elfsheen (adj. - supernaturally beautiful, noun - supernatural beauty).

So if you're keeping count: There is only one male form: elf. (However, you can also call a female elf, an elf.)
There are four possible adjective forms: elfish, elfin, elfen, and elven.
There are five possible female forms: elfe, elve, elfin, elfen, and elven.

It's little wonder that folks are befuddled!


Elfin- Something from elves Elven- Elf like Note: The people who printed Tolkien's books changed elfin to elven and vice versa quite a bit, so there is no telling how accurate anything gotten from there is. I got this from the "note about the text" in my copy of LOTR, so if you want more info you could probably get some from the most recent version of that. Also, dictionary definitions would probably help you a lot. Also, I'm just using Tolkien because that seems to be the basis for a lot of these answers. Real definitions may not actually apply in books, so if you want clarification about actual meaning, a dictionary is definitely the way to go.

  • 1
    The people who made Tolkien's films changed fell beast (adjective + noun) to fell beast (compound noun). Perhaps all these experts realise Tolkien's limitations as a linguist. Commented Oct 16, 2012 at 23:58
  • This answer mentions only one of the OP's 3 words and focuses exclusively on one source of evidence about it. Commented Oct 17, 2012 at 5:30

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