I was recently reading about the etymology of the word "wraith". Its first recorded appearance is in a Scots translation of Virgil's Aeneid and the word appears twice.
"The wraithis walkis of goistis that ar ded"
"Thyther went this wrath or schaddo of Ene"
The derivation of the word is uncertain. Some linguists believe it is related to the Old English "writhan": to writhe, or twist up.
Anyway, that's lost to time and is not what interests me. The author asserts that the two quotes are contradictory. In the first, the wraith the ghost of a dead person. In the second the character Aeneas, who is very much alive, is described as being shadow-like in the underworld.
Based on these quotes from the Aeneid, dictionary definitions have assigned multiple meanings to the word. Here's the example from the top of the Google search.
a ghost or ghostlike image of someone, especially one seen shortly before or after their death.
used in reference to a pale, thin, or insubstantial person or thing.
a wisp or faint trace of something.
Others have made the contradiction explicit, an earlier version of the OED actually using the word "living" in defining the second meaning of the word.
My question is this: when I read the two quotes from Scots, it seems easy to reconcile the difference. To do so, one merely uses the second definition: something pale or insubstantial. The word then makes sense when used for living things or dead.
How, then did the word come to be so closely associated with ghosts, to the point where dictionary compilers felt the need to make it the top definition? Is this down to Tolkien? While tempting, I suspect the "earlier" OED definition predates Lord of the Rings, although I cannot prove it.