There was once a chap called Paracelsus. He was an alchemist, chemist, medic, and all-round clever clogs 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.
So why write about 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 folk uncomfortable) is in fact 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, unless treated some garden gnomes are known to commit suicide.