Sunday 5 December 2010

Paracelsus, Gnomes, Sylphs and the Rape of the Lock

Paracelsus was an alchemist, chemist, medic, and all-round egg-head of the sixteenth century. Paracelsus was not his real name of course: that would be ridiculous. His real name was Phillippus Aureolus Theophrastus Bombastus Von Hohenheim. Paracelsus was a moniker he acquired for being the equal of the Roman writer Celsus.

Why shed foolish ink for a chemist? Because, dear reader, Paracelsus invented words. Sometimes he invented words for things that existed: he named zinc zinc because it forms into jagged crystals and zinke is Old High German for sharp. Sometimes, though, he invented names for things that he had merely imagined. And, amazingly, they caught on.

Gnomes, for example, are the children of Herr Von Hohenheim's imagination. There were no gnomes until Paracelsus dreamed them. He wrote a (serious) book describing them as being about a foot tall. He contended that just as fish move through water, and we through air, so gnomes can move through solid earth.

It seems likely, therefore, that gnome would be a shortening of genomos (earth dweller) and the poor creatures have no etymological truck with gnomic utterances, which are wise.

Paracelsus also invented sylphs. As gnomes are earth dwellers, so sylphs are spirits that of the air, and, according to him, are mortal but soulless, like Frenchmen. Nobody's sure where he got the name. It might be something to do with sylvan nymphs, but it might not, and Paracelsus is far too dead to answer questions.

Both gnomes and sylphs arrived in our language through the absurd humour of the most quoted poet in history: Alexander Pope. The Rape of the Lock (aside from having a title that makes keys uncomfortable) is a mock epic about a pretty girl having a lock of her hair cut off. Like any good epic it needed a supernatural element, so Pope took up the absurd Paracelsian spirits and made them central to his story.

Pope explains that sylphs are the spirits of women so vacuous and vain that they could not properly go to Heaven. Gnomes, on the other hand, are the spirits of prudish women, descended into the earth. The two camps fight futilely and invisibly around the heroine as she suffers her sly tonsure.

Pope's work was so popular that the words gained currency in English. Sylphs had, occasionally, been mentioned before by Paracelsian fans, but the English language had never known a gnome before Pope wrote his poem.

So, if it weren't for the combined efforts of Pope and Paracelsus, journalists would have no cliché to describe slim girls, and garden gnomes would not exist.

Incidentally, garden gnomes commit suicide.


  1. But also Paracelsus designated salamanders to rule the element of fire and nixies to rule water in addition to gnomes and sylphs.

    Paracelsus may have been simply articulating
    Germanic folk-lore as regard earth-spirits when he heard stories told by miners when a doctor for their occupational illnesses.

    I notice the name of your favourite essayist Sir T.B. pops up on this blog from time to time. You should have a rich field day Inky Fool with peculiar words and neologisms if you're a reader of the works of Sir T.B. because he's the most frequently quoted author of the Oxford Dictionary for the origin or first use of words; 'retromingent', hallucination' 'ambidextrous', antediluvian' and the ever-popular 'callipygian' immediately spring to mind. There's many more!

  2. I could probably keep this blog going solely on the works of Sir Thomas.

  3. Have you access to the 17 volume OED O Inky Fool ? (a brilliant nom-de-plume by the way).

    All of the many aspects of Browne is actually a primary theme of my blog!

    Is it the literary works of Browne, or just his etymology/neologisms which interest you most?

    I too posted on both Paracelsus and gnomes several months ago now.

    An interesting blog Cheers!

  4. Ball perceptively portrays Paracelsus as a social and religious conservative who was appalled by the Renaissance surrender of the medieval social contract to the Machiavellian forces of a money economy and who reacted with alarm to changes that created misery and distrust among Christians.

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