In this interesting feature, Tolkien scholar Michael Martinez answers what on the surface seems a very simple question: why is the land of the Hobbits in The Lord of the Rings called The Shire?
THE NAME of the Shire in The Lord of the Rings is one of the most mis-understood names in Tolkien’s lexicon. Many readers have suggested that J.R.R. Tolkien was using “Shire” to denote some sort of special relationship to England — i.e., they believe that Tolkien was hinting that the Shire was supposed to be identified with modern England.
There is some truth to this proposal, but only in a limited sense. That is, the Shire is not intended to be geographically or politically associated with England in a literal sense. Rather, it is presented to the reader in terms that would have been familiar to someone who was native to England. While this intention might seem like the clenching proof one needs to show that the Shire must be England, Tolkien ruled out that possibility in the notes he prepared for translators of The Lord of the Rings.
In “Nomenclature of The Lord of the Rings” Tolkien wrote:
It is desirable that the translator should read Appendix F in Volume III of The Lord of the Rings and follow the theory there set out. In the original text English represents the Common Speech of the supposed period. Names that are given in modern English therefore represent names in the Common Speech, often but not always being translations of older names in other languages, especially Sindarin (Grey-elven). The language of translation now replaces English as the equivalent of the Common Speech; the names in English form should therefore be translated into the other language according to their meaning (as closely as possible).
Bootnote: the link above should go to the full article on Martinenz’s website. Unfortunately the site appears down right now — hoping it will come back soon so you can read the article in full.