Olm.

Ferris Jabr’s NYT Magazine piece “The Mysterious, Deep-Dwelling Microbes That Sculpt Our Planet” (adapted from his book Becoming Earth: How Our Planet Came to Life; archived) blew my mind, as we used to say: I had no idea that “a majority of the planet’s microbes, perhaps more than 90 percent, may live deep un­derground” (though of course biology-oriented Hatters will have long been aware of it, and will probably pick holes in the article). I’m going to quote a couple of paragraphs; the final word is what prompts me to post:

Among all living creatures, the peculiar microbes that dwell deep within the planet’s crust today may most closely resemble some of the earliest single-celled organisms that ever existed. Collectively, these subsurface microbes make up an estimated 10 to 20 percent of the biomass — that is, all the living matter — on Earth. Yet until the mid-20th century, most scientists did not think subterranean life of any kind was plausible below a few meters.

The oldest scientific reports of subsurface life date only to the 1600s. In 1684, while traveling through central Slovenia, the naturalist Janez Vajkard Valvasor investigated rumors of a dragon living beneath a spring near Ljubljana. Local residents believed the dragon forced water to the surface every time it shifted its body. After heavy rains, they sometimes found baby dragons washed up on rocks nearby: slender and sinuous with blunted snouts, frilled throats and nearly translucent pink skin. It was not for another century that naturalists formally identified the creatures as aquatic salamanders that lived exclusively underground in water flowing through limestone caves. They are now known as olms.

Olms! One would have expected some Greco-Latin polysyllable; of course I had to investigate, and happily the OED revised its entry in 2004. The definition:

A large, blind, aquatic salamander, Proteus anguinus (family Proteidae), with a whitish eel-like body, very small legs, and reddish gills that are retained throughout life, found only in limestone caves from Montenegro to north-east Italy.

The first cite:

1871 The Olm, which only casually comes to the light of day, along with the overflowing waters of the Cirknitz Lake, was first discovered in 1814, in one of its permanent subterranean abodes.
G. Hartwig, Subterranean World 165

(The Second Edition only took it back to a 1905 textbook.) And the etymology:

< German Olm (first used in this sense by L. Oken Lehrb. der Naturgeschichte (1816) iii. 189; 11th cent. in Old High German as olm, glossing classical Latin stelliō a kind of lizard: see stellion n.), of uncertain origin; perhaps a variant of Old High German molm newt, salamander (see mole n.³). Compare (< German) Swedish olm (1861 or earlier), Dutch olm.

Notes
The German word is used in early modern German dictionaries of the mid 16th cent. in sense ‘newt’.

Not an exciting word, but a good, solid one (like mole and newt).

Comments

  1. Could German olm be a loanword from a North Germanic orm (cognate with worm)? Does this r>l sound possible?

  2. Great word! Reminds me of an LH-relevant documentary on salamanders in an endangered Berber variety called Tasahlit: Taṭaṛett (documentaire : la Salamandre des Babors).

  3. Thanks for that link, Lameen!

    It led me to consult Massinissa Garaoun (2021) “À propos des dénominations de la salamandre d’Afrique du Nord : motivations, contact de langues et approche ethnobiologique” (available here), which was very interesting. LH readers can find more on the etymology of Tasaḥlit taṭaṛett ‘salamander’ in section 3.2.3., Le bloc redondant ḌR « pied/tombé » + GNW « ciel » (with note 19 on the phonology).

  4. Oh, salamanders are female in French? In German, they are male.
    Re Olm: I’m more used to see the compound Grottenolm than the simplex. But are there non-cave olms?

  5. PlasticPaddy says

    DWDS has:

    Als dt. Bezeichnung für den in der 2. Hälfte des 18. Jhs. entdeckten, im Wasser lebenden Schwanzlurch mit verkümmerten Gliedmaßen übernimmt Oken (1816) den alten, heute noch landschaftlich gebrauchten Namen Olm ‘Salamander, Molch’,

    The extent of the country areas where the word is or was used for a salamander is not stated; however a search on https://woerterbuchnetz.de/ finds attestations in Luxemburg and Lorraine.

  6. The Slovene name for olm is the strange and evocative “človeška ribica” – the literal translation is “the human fish”, I guess because it’s fish-like but also has a head and limbs etc?

  7. In Dutch the word olm stands only for a kind of tree, the Ulmus campestris. Synonym is: iep.
    Source: the dictionaries of Instituut voor de Nederlandse Taal.
    https://ivdnt.org/woordenboeken/zoeken-in-woordenboeken/?w=olm

  8. In Dutch the word olm stands only for a kind of tree, the Ulmus campestris
    The German equivalent of that word is Ulme.

  9. J.W. Brewer says

    @Hans: certain Germanic languages have apparently fallen under Latinate sway rather than keeping the good Proto-Germanic vowel found in English “elm.” Quoth the internet: ‘Old English elm, from Proto-Germanic *elmaz (source also of Danish elm, Old Norse almr, Old High German elme), perhaps from PIE root *el- (2) “red, brown” (see elk); cognate with Latin ulmus, Old Irish lem. German Ulme, Dutch olm are from or influenced by the Latin word.’

  10. “holm” [Quercus ilex] is from “holin” [Ilex] Was the m-to-n change arbitrary, phonology, to avoid confusing oak with holly, or some influence of elm?

  11. @Lameen, a freind asked me to adopt some of her old books, I picked one titled Sahara není jen písek by Jiří Haleš, a Czech biologist and enthusiast of nature conservation.
    “Sahara is not only sand” that is. It turned out to be fun reading.

    He writes about encouraging local enthusiasts and exploring environment-friendly modes of tourism and your link looks like a commentary. He travelled in Algeria several times, in 67 – with his freinds, hitchhiking – and in 70s (more official visits, making films). Hitchhiking in Algeria in 67 is something that makes me seriously envy them. (and gueltas in Tassili n Ajjer that he explored in 70s too)

  12. cuchuflete says

    In Dutch the word olm stands only for a kind of tree, the Ulmus campestris

    In Spanish it comes from the Latin Ulmus.

    Diccionario de Autoridades – Tomo V (1737)

    OLMO. s. m. Especie de Alamo, que crece y se eleva mucho, y sus hojas son anchas, verdes, y obscúras en el color. Viene del Latino Ulmus, que significa lo mismo. LAG. Diosc. lib. 1. cap. 92. Ninguno hai que no conozca mui bien el Olmo. CANC. Obr. poet. Esdrúxulos a N. Señora.
    Y entre los Olmos el zéphyro
    Resuena con metro orgánico.
    Pedir peras al Olmo. Phrase vulgar que se usa para explicar, que alguno no executará una cosa que se le dice, o por ser ajeno de entenderla, o por ser contrario y repugnante a su inclinación. Latín. Hircum mulgére. CERV. Quix. tom. 2. cap. 40. Yá lo querria ver (respondió Sancho) pero pensar que tengo de subir en él, ni en la silla, ni en las ancas, es pedir peras al olmo

  13. Hitchhiking in Algeria in 67 is something that makes me seriously envy them.

    More precisely (I’m typing this because I want to remember described localities): the route is from Algiers to the west then at “Iɣil Izzan (Relizane)” to the south to Aïn-Séfra – Adrar – Aoulef-el-Arab – Aïn-Salah – Tamanrasset – a village In Eker – a place near El Goléa – Ghardaïa – Algiers.

    Aïn-Séfra means various places around (GT: “One day I was turning over stones in the desert between Ain Sefra and Sfissifa, when a small armed detachment on horseback suddenly arrived there…” – eventually the commander spends half a hour turning stones with the author) and also a subsequence Aïn-Séfra – [Bechar] – Kenadsa – Taghit. There was a Czech geological expedition in Kennadsa one of whose members was heading to Taghit (and there is a valley with rock art depicting animals near Taghit).

    The company is the author, a teacher and a recent graduate Petr and an engineer “who was studiying in several univerisites and langauge schools” Sofie. Or Sofia. Or Žofia. (I read it in Russian).

    Several of these localities are familiar to anyone interested in Berber:
    Aïn-Séfra is not far from Figuig in Morocco.
    A “military regiment” moving from Tamanrasset to Ourgla took them, two more travellers and several locals (and then entered the garrison near the village In Eker in Tamanrasset district and dropped everyone there. They spent there four days choosing between a hut that provides shadow but not transportaion (the military guys shared some water and bread but not information about what happened) and the road a kilometer away, without shadow but with occasional cars).
    Ghardaïa is M’zab. One of largest cities forming an agglomeration in M’zab.
    Figuig, Ouargla and M’zab are names you see all the time when reading about Berber.

    But as they were interested in biology rather than linguistics, the author was bitten by a snake soon after El Goléa (renamed to El Menia since then. One means “fortress”, the other “impenetrable” so I don’t follow the logic) then their truck ran out of fuel, then when they reached Ghardaïa the author was in hospital, a driver of a car parked there took Sofia to Aïn Oussera because their plane was taking off 30 hours later and her exams were going to start a few days later, and the author and Petr returned to the place in the desert where their track ran out of fuel to look around for more snakes (they ran out of food but slightly more than a week without food until next plane did not look like a problem). From my experience, biologists are like this.

    All of this contrasts strikingly with the stories of female Soviet teachers in Algeria. No, they were not harrassed or anything – but they were warned (by the inviting party I think) about kidnappings and warfare and everything, and as result remember Algeria as a dangerous place.

  14. The narrator of “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” is unnamed, but in Lovecraft’s notes for the story, he considered calling him “Robert Olmstead.” That would have fit with the Marsh, Gilman, etc. families, but Lovecraft ultimately decided against using the name.

  15. Dutch does have olm also as the animal, Olm on WiPe, “origin unknown”.

  16. David Marjanović says

    Could German olm be a loanword from a North Germanic orm (cognate with worm)? Does this r>l sound possible?

    Interesting idea… but I’m not aware of any precedent for r/l confusion in German. Also, within German, the word doesn’t seem to be particularly northern if it’s attested in Luxemburg and Lorraine.

    I guess because it’s fish-like but also has a head and limbs etc?

    Sure. Also, no pigment.

    But are there non-cave olms?

    …Kinda; but only known since 1986. English, German (very different text).

  17. Robert Olmstead

    i’m enjoying thinking of frederick law olmstead (and his school, unto the days of r. moses) as part of the lovecraft mythos (his levirate marriage helps). the emerald necklace becomes a sigil to bind boston to the Deep Ones; the ritual purification intent of the destruction of seneca village and the other midmanhattan communities becomes even clearer (as if it needed to); the telephone in mary baker eddy’s tomb gets even creepier; the rose garden and vale of cashmere in prospect park get even more gloriously evocative…

    Amphibians do not have a fixed number of vertebrae.

    this, from the black olm section of the english wp page, seems to fit in somehow also.

  18. The Wikipedia entry says of olm:

    It may be a variant of the word Molch ‘salamander’.

    That seems doubtful, but it made me wonder what the native Slavic word for salamanders (or newts) was, since the original Czech title of War With the Newts was “Válka s Mloky,” and mloky (manifestly a loanword) was apparently a learned borrowing by Jan Svatopluk Presl.

  19. Jan Svatopluk Presl

    This maniac.

    That was an interesting thread.

  20. Dmitry Pruss says

    I wondered about the original Slavic word too, having seen for the first time this summer the tiger salamander larvae just yesterday. They are our local high altitude relatives of the famous axolotls, which we always refer to as Tritons in Russian (triturus newts, obviously a borrowed word). Like, could there exist a better word than тритончик? These cuties are on my Fb BTW

  21. cuchuflete says

    […] They are our local high altitude relatives of the famous axolotls…

    Julio Cortázar wrote a wonderful short story about axolotls.

    English translation- https://ambystoma.uky.edu/teachers_materials/axolitbook/AxolotlByJulioCortazar.html

    En español – https://www.ingenieria.unam.mx/dcsyhfi/material_didactico/Literatura_Hispanoamericana_Contemporanea/Autores_C/CORTAZAR/AxO.pdf

  22. wow, nice story. Yes, aren’t they otherwordly? Interestingly, the barriers between paedomorphic existence of the axolotls and the “regular salamander life” of our metamorphising tiger salamanders aren’t as strong as we used to imagine. The highlands of Mexico are full of diverse salamander species, some described as paedomorphic and others as partly or completely metamorphic, but genomic studies show that these officially-designated species are better described as subpopulations of one species. The geographic barriers to their interbreeding only started to emerge in the last million years during the uplift of the Mexican mountains, but their lifestyles are, surprisingly, not a barrier and all these species continue to interbreed with their neighbors anyhow.
    https://www.pnas.org/content/118/17/e2014719118

  23. Dmitry Pruss says

    … and randomly checking the words used for salamanders or newts in Slavic languages, I was surprised that across the Balkans, mormoloc / mormoljak is either a newt or a humble tadpole and the claimed etymology is from Greek μορμολύκειον “scarecrow”, itself derived from the fairytale ogre Mormo invoked to scare little children. What?

  24. Morno is a name or an epithet for one or more orgrish monsters, typically female like (or equivalent to) Lamia or Gello, attested as bugbears used to frighten naughty children from classical down through Byzantine* times. The name Mormo may be pre-Greek; if so it was conflated with a word meaning “terrifying.” Mormolyce then means “terrible wolf,” the second element being metaphorical. That name might also have been used for scarecrows, but it seems unlikely that was ever the primary meaning.

    * Anna Komnene assumes her readers are familiar with the monster:

    Her young betrothed, being still a young boy, shrank from the union from the outset, just as babies are scared by Mormo.

  25. Modern Finnish mörmö ‘some kind of a monster, videogame enemy’, reduplicated from an ideophone √mör- ‘to growl, be scary’; this partly to more general √m-r- ‘make droning noise’ (marise- ‘complain’, märise- ‘weep excessively or unnecessarily’, murise- ‘growl’…) but probably partly also colored by mörkö ‘monster in the dark, bugbear to scare children’, which presumably ← Swedish mörk ‘dark’

  26. @J Pystynen: That mörkö certainly looks Germanic. However, is there really a serious suggestion that reduplication to reach mörmö occurred in Finnish? It’s certainly possible the origin of the name is reduplicative; however, it seems pretty likely that the reduplication occurred in ancient Greek or before, and the word was subsequently borrowed in the two-syllable form into other languages, including Finnish.

  27. The Slovene name for olm is the strange and evocative “človeška ribica”

    Wow! Thanks for that, namanja. I will remember that name every time I see a picture of an olm, now.

  28. 11th cent. in Old High German as olm, glossing classical Latin stelliō a kind of lizard

    For the curious, olm as a gloss on stelio (that is, stellio ‘stellion, spotted lizard, newt’) written in a manuscript of the second quarter of the 11th century can be found here (folio 176v d), the first word in the second line from the top of the righthand column. Note the reddish ink different from the other glosses. Is the manuscript ultimately of Bavarian provenance? It was long kept at Tegernsee, at least. The text glossed is Virgil, Georgic 4, lines 242–243:

    …nam saepe favos ignotus adedit
    stellio et lucifugis congesta cubilia blattis

    …for often a newt has nibbled
    the combs unseen, and wax moths, light-fleeing, fill the cells

    (Strangely, I had occasion to quote these very lines just a couple of weeks ago at LH, in thread about Russian tarakan, ‘cockroach’.)

  29. That is truly remarkable (those lines aren’t exactly “Arma virumque cano”), though of course less so at LH.

  30. Rodger C says

    Are blattae really wax moths, whatever a wax moth is? In scientific Latin they’re cockroaches, which are as light-fleeing as you’d wish.

    Let Moth wax Jennings.

  31. … and randomly checking the words used for salamanders or newts in Slavic languages, I was surprised that across the Balkans, mormoloc / mormoljak is either a newt or a humble tadpole and the claimed etymology is from Greek μορμολύκειον “scarecrow”, itself derived from the fairytale ogre Mormo invoked to scare little children. What?

    it’s mrmoljak (just one o) or vodenjak or triton. (personally vodenjak is the word i’d use). i assumed mrmoljak was derived from “mrmljati” (to mumble or mutter) but the etymology you provided is far more interesting!

  32. Rodger C says

    Continuing the theme of word meanings, an afterthought: perhaps the original meaning of blatta is something like “nasty bug”?

  33. @Rodger C: As the quote suggests, wax moths are major pest of honeybees. They literally subsist on eating the wax of combs (and other substances) in weak hives. (Strong hives are generally good at expelling them.) On the other hand, I have never heard of newts or salamanders troubling beehives.

  34. Regarding Molch and Olm: the form Molch is relatively recent (15th century, popularized by Luther), before that it was MHG mol or molle, and OHG mol, mollo and molm.

  35. Several of these localities are familiar to anyone interested in Berber

    Sfissifa was Berber-speaking until recently – maybe it still is – and there are Berber-speaking villages near Taghit and Ain Sefra. I’ve been to Kenadsa – a pleasant little town, home to the notable author Yasmina Khadra, as well as to a good-sized manuscript library.

    Iɣil Izzan (Relizane)

    If my home town were named after flies, in a language that its people don’t speak any more, I’d probably prefer a spelling that makes it a little less obvious too.

    All of this contrasts strikingly with the stories of female Soviet teachers in Algeria. No, they were not harrassed or anything – but they were warned (by the inviting party I think) about kidnappings and warfare and everything, and as result remember Algeria as a dangerous place.

    Must have been very late Soviet – 1990?

    PS Sounds like a fun book – kind of makes me wish I could read Czech.

  36. those lines aren’t exactly “Arma virumque cano”

    As an oblique and unintended taking of the sortes Vergilianae, those lines are not favorable (favos…). Absit omen.

  37. David Marjanović says

    Most newts were called Triton for something like a century.

    Amphibians do not have a fixed number of vertebrae.

    Frogs very much do.

    In mammals, the kind of mutation that messes with the number of vertebrae also increases the risk of very-early-onset cancer. But salamanders have such slow metabolism their cancer risk is exceedingly low. That’s also how they get away with regrowing entire limbs and all sorts of organs without getting cancer all over from all the encouragement of cell division.

  38. Stu Clayton says

    such slow metabolism their cancer risk is exceedingly low.

    Follow the science:
    Having a slow metabolism, or having it slow down due to age does not have to mean the end of the world.

  39. Brett, those are some nasty bugs all right. Thanks.

Speak Your Mind

*