Sauron was not always called Sauron, though – whether in real-world terms or within the legendarium. We will look at the “internal” perspective first.
Fourteen more years had to pass before we finally learnt that Sauron was once called Mairon (rhymes with Byron, if one does not slur the last syllable but sounds it as the preposition on). In 2007 the following information finally surfaced in issue #17 of the Tolkien-linguistic journal Parma Eldalamberon:
Sauron’s original name was Mairon, but this was altered after he was suborned by Melkor. But he continued to call himself Mairon the Admirable, or Tar-mairon ‘King Excellent’, until after the downfall of Númenor.(P. 183, italics as in the source.) The name Mairon thus means “admirable/excellent one”, a masculine noun derived from the adjective maira “admirable, excellent, precious” or “splendid, sublime” – “only [used] of great, august or splendid things” (PE17:163). The noun maia is related, though this name of the lesser kin of the Valar was later applied to all of these spirits without moral distinction: “Sauron the Maia” is himself a prime example that not all of them maintained their “excellent” original state.
Mairon is a Quenya (High-elven) word, which lands us in something of a chronological mess: According to the Silmarillion, Sauron was already the lieutenant of Melkor when the Elves awoke in the world, so when the Elves first learnt about him, he was well into his “evil” career. How, then, could he ever have had an Elvish name referring to him as the Admirable? Indeed, how can his “original” name have been Elvish at all, when he was in the world long before there were any Elves?
Tolkien experimented with various versions of Sauron’s early career. In one version, he had not definitely sided with Melkor long before the Elves awoke in the world; rather he was a citizen of the Blessed Realm who followed Melkor-Morgoth back to Middle-earth after the latter had destroyed the Two Trees (see Christopher Tolkien’s comments in LR:290). If so, “Mairon” did indeed live in Valinor when the Elves were also there, and he could have been given this name by them before he went bad.
Early versions of Tolkien’s linguistic scenario also presupposed that the Elvish language family was ultimately derived from Valarin, the language of the “Gods” themselves (LR:168). If so, “Mairon” could be the Quenya form of a name that had existed in Valarin before the Elves actually arrived on the world-scene.
According to Tolkien’s late ideas, as reflected in the essay Quendi and Eldar published in WJ:357-417, Valarin was however wholly unrelated to the Elvish family of tongues (the Elves might even find its sound unpleasant, WJ:396). It is said that the Valar encouraged the Elves, not to borrow words from Valarin, but rather to “translate the meanings of names into fair Eldarin [= Elvish] forms” (WJ:405). So when Mairon is said to be Sauron’s “original” name, maybe we must take this to mean that he had some unstated Valarin name that meant The Admirable, and that this was later translated into Quenya as Mairon when the Elves learnt about this person from the Valar (at which time he was not so admirable anymore). If so it is not necessary to assume that Sauron and the Elves were ever in the Blessed Realm at the same time, nor do we have to revive Tolkien’s abandoned idea that Elvish was actually derived from the tongue of the Valar.
Tolkien’s languages were always in a state of flux; the Professor had ever new ideas he wanted to work into them. Producing anything like a definite account of their structure and grammar was psychologically impossible for him. His son observes: “It seems indeed that the very attempt to write a definitive account produced immediate dissatisfaction and the desire for new constructions” (LR:342). If we try to zoom in on the philological particulars, we soon have to realize that below a certain level of detail there are no hard “facts” to be recovered or reconstructed. When trying to peer into Tolkien’s mind, we simply find ourselves staring into a boiling cauldron of shifting conceptions.
The name Sauron can indeed be used to illustrate this process. Everything may seem very straightforward if we simply rely on the posthumously published Silmarillion of 1977 – edited by Christopher Tolkien and Guy Kay. If we look up Sauron in the index, we are told that it means “The Abhorred”, corresponding to Sindarin Gorthaur. Furthermore, a linguistic appendix includes the entry thaur “abominable, abhorrent”, this element yielding the name Sauron (“from Thauron”) and the Sindarin form Gorthaur. But as Christopher Tolkien honestly warns in the introduction to this Appendix, the whole presentation is very compressed, giving it “an air of certainty and finality that is not altogether justified”. This is a British understatement if there ever was one.
In the Silmarillion Appendix we encounter the idea that the initial s of Sauron was originally th (a spirant as in English thing, though in the very oldest form of Elvish it was an aspirate, more or less as in English outhouse). The change of th (þ) to s in Quenya is indeed a rather celebrated sound-change, and Tolkien was able to develop a whole story around it; see “The Shibboleth of Fëanor” in PM:331-339 for an excellent example of how intertwined Tolkien’s languages and narratives can be.
The explanation given in the published Silmarillion is certainly consistent with a late (and so, some will think, virtually “canonical”) analysis of the name Sauron that appears in a draft letter from 1967. Tolkien here pooh-poohed the idea of some critics that the Greek word saura “lizard” was the real source of the name Sauron. (This Greek noun gives us the final syllable of dinosaur, and so we have the association to dragons, the dragon being a traditional symbol of Satan – and since Tolkien himself wrote about the “Satanic rebellion of Morgoth and his satellite Sauron” [Letters:202], the chain of semantic connections might seem seductively complete!) But Tolkien in his draft letter cited a wholly “internal” explanation of the name: The ultimate source was an Elvish root THAW, with such prehistoric derivatives as the adjective θaurâ “detestable” (the initial Greek letter here represents th as an aspirate). The name Sauron is said to be a “contemporary” (i.e. Third Age?) form of θaurond-, an ancient noun-formation based on that adjective (Letters:380). In Quenya, the adjective would have appeared as saura (archaic thaura), and the name Sauron would be a later pronunciation of Thauron, exactly as stated in the Silmarillion Appendix.
If we turn the clock 30 years back, to the linguistic notes Tolkien wrote around the time he started working on The Lord of the Rings, concepts are not wildly different but still distinguishable. In the Etymologies, a list of hundreds of Elvish root-words and their derivatives in later Elvish, Tolkien mentioned a base THÛ “puff, blow” which yields Quenya words for “breathe, breath” and also such an august title as Súlimo, Manwë’s surname as a “wind-god” (we are to understand that the older pronunciation was Thúlimo). And then it comes (LR:392):
THUS- (related to THÛ?) *thausâ: Q[uenya] saura foul, evil-smelling, putrid. N[oldorin] thaw corrupt, rotten; thû stench, as proper name Thû chief servant of Morgoth, also called Mor-thu, Q[uenya] Sauro or Sauron or Súro = Thû.
The variations may seem fairly trivial (notice, however, that Sindarin is still “Noldorin”). The basic root is here THUS rather than THAW, and the prehistoric adjective was not θaurâ (i.e. thaurâ) but rather thausâ. This form could arise from the base THUS by means of the sporadic A-infixion occurring in Tolkien’s Elvish (thus- becoming thaus-, and since s occurring between vowels became z and then r in later Quenya, the Quenya adjective is still thaura > saura). In this conception, Sauron would have to be a later pronunciation of a name that had once sounded as Thauzon. The ending -on is often used to derive masculine names from adjectives (one of the Númenórean kings is for instance called Ancalimon, cf. the superlative adjective ancalima “most bright”). This ending may imply something big or great, as in Quenya andon “great gate” (vs. simple ando “gate”) or mindon “lofty tower” (vs. mindo “tower”). Given the stated meaning of various derivatives of the root THUS, it would be tempting to translate the name Sauron as Big Stinker.
But further conceptual variations are not hard to find. In some of Tolkien’s post-LotR notes on linguistic elements in his novel, the underlying root is suddenly SAWA “disgusting, foul, vile”, once again yielding a Quenya adjective saura of similar meaning, which in turn is to be the origin of the name Sauron (PE17:182). The notion that the initial s was once th here goes out of the window, instead it was s all along, and the related Quenya derivatives have to do with filth or moral wickedness rather than “stench”: Quenya is here ascribed a noun soa “filth”, representing earlier Elvish sawa, and there was also supposed to be a prefix sau- as in saucare, “doing or making a thing very badly. Not used in Sindarin as prefix; but the adjective saur occurs in sense ‘bad’ of food, etc., putrid, also substantive saw, filth, putrescence.” (It may be noted that in the Etymologies of the 1930s, saw had been an unrelated Elvish noun with the quite innocent meaning “juice”!)
In further notes, Tolkien discusses Sindarin forms of the name Sauron. The form Gorthaur, known from the published Silmarillion, turns up along with the alternatives Gorthu and Thû. Here the root is supposed to be THUS, just as in the Etymologies – but now this means “evil mist, fog, Darkness” rather than yielding a string of words having to do with stench and rottenness.
Then Tolkien writes against all of this: “No. THAW-, cruel. Saura, cruel. Gorthaur.”
This extremely condensed statement must be taken to mean that the root THAW has emerged, just as in the draft letter from 1967 discussed above, but here THAW was to mean “cruel” rather than “detestable”. (The published Silmarillion also refers to “Gorthaur the Cruel” near the end of the Valaquenta, though no claim is made that “the Cruel” actually translates the Elvish name this epithet is added to.) In yet other notes the root SAWA reappears, now meaning “bad, unhealthy, ill, wretched” (PE17:184).
Yet other variations on this philological riddle can be dug up. In one source (WJ:54), the Sindarin name of Sauron was not Gorthaur/Gorthu but Gorsodh. If we reverse-engineer the latter syllable by applying Tolkien’s sound-laws backwards, we find that sodh is most likely meant to represent older saud-, apparently implying that Sauron’s name would have appeared as Saudon(d)- in ancient Elvish. In Quenya, d between vowels became z and then r, so conveniently the outcome in late Quenya would still be Sauron (for older Sauzon). It is very typical that Tolkien has already decided what the “final” form of a word or name is to be, but then he experiments with every conceivable derivation that could possibly lead to the desired result, throwing forward one primitive root after the other.
To summarize, the name Sauron is a Third Age pronunciation of something in earlier Elvish. Maybe the initial s was once th, or maybe it was s all along; maybe the au represents aw in a primitive root, or maybe this diphthong originated from A-infixion of a root that only had u; maybe the r was earlier z, which in turn can come from either s or d, if the r wasn’t simply r already in prehistoric times; anyhow, the ending -on seems to represent older -ond- (the last hyphen hints at a final vowel that was later lost). The underlying root may be SAWA, THU /THUS or maybe THAW (pick the one you like best). The meaning must be sought among a string of partially overlapping, partly contradictory glosses like foul, evil-smelling, corrupt, detestable, abhorred, unhealthy, ill, wretched or perhaps even cruel.
Of this we can at least be sure: Whoever first gave Mairon the name Sauron did not intend it as a compliment.
We are told that throughout the Second Age, until the Downfall of Númenor, Sauron tried to hold on to his original name (PE17:183, quoted above). That is, when seducing the Elves of Eregion, he did of course assume wholly new names, such as Annatar Lord of Gifts and Aulendil Friend of Aulë (since he knew that the Noldorin exiles held this Vala in high regard). In the Adûnaic (Númenorean) tongue, he was apparently known as Zigûr, the Wizard (SD:247, 250, cf. 437).
One Quenya word for “wizard” is sairon (LR:385), and I have actually seen a suggestion to the effect that Sairon was the actual name of this Maia, which his enemies punningly altered to Sauron when he joined Morgoth. It was a promising theory, but the 2007 publication of Mairon as Sauron’s original name seems to have killed it off.
In real-world terms, we must look for the origins of the name Sauron around the mid-1930s, when Tolkien started his abortive Atlantis-novel The Lost Road set in Númenor (Atalantë). In very early drafts for the story of “the Fall of Númenor” we hear about how Thû “comes to Atalantë [and] heralded the approach of Morgoth” (LR:11). A second draft relates that “it came to pass that Sûr (whom the Gnomes called Thû) came in the likeness of a great bird to Númenor” (LR:15). Ideas are still very immature compared to the polished Akallabêth that later emerged, but Sûr would seem to be a (slightly unusual) Quenya form corresponding to Noldorin Thû: According to Tolkien’s sound-laws, both names can be derived from a common original thus- in ancient Elvish. The “Gnomes” are the Noldor, and Noldorin (at this stage) is de facto the Celtic-style Elvish which Tolkien later turned into Sindarin. The form Thû also appears in the entry THUS from the Etymologies, quoted above, and with the name Sûr compare the (more typical) Quenya form Súro there listed.
When Tolkien rewrote the “The Fall of Númenor” once again, the (to us) familiar name does turn up: “It came to pass that Sauron, servant of Morgoth, grew mighty in Middle-earth.…” – and it is now Sauron who comes to Númenor and seduces its people to worship Morgoth. Later the Last Alliance went “to Mordor the Black Country, where Sauron, that is in the Gnomish tongue named Thû, had rebuilt his fortresses” (LR:26, 28). Commenting on the change from Sûr, Christopher Tolkien comments: “In all probability the name Sauron…first appears here or in the closely related passage in The Lost Road” – namely the passage that refers to how “Sauron came” to Númenor (LR:30, 66).
Here, then, emerges the later so well-known name of the great antagonist of the Legendarium. A clearly datable reference to the name occurs in a 1937 letter to Stanley Unwin, Tolkien describing how The Hobbit got drawn into edge of the Silmarillion mythology “so that even Sauron the terrible peeped over the edge” in the form of the Necromancer (Letters:26).
If we look at the first drafts for The Fellowship of the Ring, as published in The Return of the Shadow, the name Sauron enters relatively late. When Gandalf tells “Bingo” (later happily renamed Frodo) about the origin of the Ring, he speaks of its creator as “the Lord of the Ring(s)” or just “the Lord”. He also uses variant titles such as “the dark master” and of course “the Necromancer” (RS:74, 78, 80, 81). But not before the hobbits have reached Rivendell does Elrond refer to “Sauron the Magician” in one draft, and tells “Bingo” about how he went with Gilgalad “to Mordor, the Black Country, where Sauron had rebuilt his fortress” (RS:215, 216). Notice how the language closely resembles one of the passages quoted above, the very texts where Christopher Tolkien believes the name first turned up.
The “Noldorin”/Sindarin name Thû does show up in the The Return of the Shadow in the longer form Morthu, “Black Thû”. At Weathertop, when “Bingo” is being attacked by the Ringwraiths, he hears “himself crying aloud (though he did not know why): Elbereth! Gilthoniel! Gurth i Morthu!” (RS:186) Elbereth Gilthoniel is of course an invocation of Varda the Starkindler, well-known from the published trilogy. The phrase gurth i Morthu! is nowhere translated, but must mean something like “death [to] the Black Thû!”
One may wonder why Tolkien finally decided to go with the name Sauron (usually explained as a Quenya form) as the regular name of the antagonist. After all, most of the nomenclature of his trilogy is derived from Sindarin. Would The Lord of the Rings have been quite the same book if the villain had been called Thû (or Morthu, Gorthu, Gorthaur, or even Gorsodh) instead of Sauron? The Thû-variants as such remained conceptually valid, for even in post-Lord of the Rings notes, Tolkien mentioned such alternate names of Sauron as Gorthu (PE17:183, there interpreted “Mist of Fear”, whereas thû in the same source said to be a Sindarin word for “horrible darkness, black mist”).
If we go back to the manuscripts Christopher Tolkien calls the “earliest Silmarillion”, written in or about 1930, we find that the name Thû is used freely in the narratives. “Thû the hunter” (hopefully not yet another meaning for this name in all its variants!) in one draft enslaves Beren (SM:25). As “a sorcerer of dreadful power” and “the chief servant of Morgoth”, Thû invades the watchtower of Sirion (SM:106). The story of how “Thû” is defeated by Lúhien and Huan the Wolfhound is pretty much as we know it from later material (SM:110-111, cf. chapter 19 of the published Silmarillion). Thû as the “great chief” of Morgoth escapes the “Last Battle and dwells still in dark places”, perverting Men to his “dreadful worship” (SM:40). Before anything had been written about the Second and Third Ages, Tolkien established the notion of Morgoth’s great servant who survived the War of Wrath and caused further problems after the fall of the first Dark Lord. Later the Professor would however come to prefer a different form of his name. He never wholly abandoned the Thû-variants, but the Quenya name Sauron must have eventually have struck him as the better form for use in regular narratives.
Finally it may be noted that if we dig even deeper into the real-world history of the Sauron character, The Book of Lost Tales (written during World War I) includes a figure called Tevildo. In the original story of Beren and Lúthien, this “Tevildo” (also called “Prince of Cats” or “Lord of Cats”) has the role later given to Sauron. In some sense he therefore “is” the conceptual prototype of Sauron. In the contemporary Qenya Lexicon, Tevildo’s name is derived from the root TEFE (not wholly dissimilar to THAW, one of the candidate stems later supposed to underlie the name Sauron). Its basic meaning has to do with hatred; besides the name Tevildo itself, it yields such “Qenya” words as teve- “hate, dislike” and the noun tévie “hatred” (PE12:90).
As we have seen, later names of the “same” character would have (many!) other meanings, but one thing remains constant over the decades: the name of Tevildo-Thû-Sauron never did mean anything nice. Mairon the Admirable forever forfeited his pleasant name when he made the fatal career move of joining Morgoth. In real-world terms his “good” original name was indeed nothing more than a brief afterthought of Tolkien’s – scribbled down in a late note, and to the best of my knowledge appearing nowhere else.
Maybe, to Tolkien, the “name” did come first and the “story” followed. But the process certainly worked in both directions, and as the stories evolved through endless revisions, the “name” inspiring them could also be changed and reinterpreted.