The worm that turned

cartoon worm

While working in my garden this afternoon I dug up lots of worms, so I thought it might be interesting to find out more about the word worm.

Meanings of worm (/wɜːm/ /wɝm/) include:

– a member of the genus Lumbricus; a slender, creeping, naked, limbless animal, usually brown or reddish, with a soft body divided into a series of segments; an earthworm. More widely, any annelid, terrestrial, aquatic, or marine;
– any animal that creeps or crawls; a reptile; an insect;
– serpent, snake, dragon;
– four-footed animals considered noxious or objectionable.

Some of these meanings are archaic or obsolete.

There have been many variant spellings, including wirm, wrim, wyrme, weorm, werm, werme, wurm, wurem, orm, wrm, wourme, woirme, woorme, worme, and it finally settled on worm.

Worm comes from the Old English wyrm (a serpent, snake, dragon), from the Proto-Germanic *wurmiz (serpent, worm), from the Proto-Indo-European *wrmi-/*wrmo- (worm), possibly from *wer- (to turn). *wrmi-/*wrmo- is also the root of the Irish and Scottish Gaelic word gorm (blue/black), the Welsh gwrm (dusky), the Danish/Norwegian/Swedish orm (snake), the Latin vermis, which is the root of the English words vermilion and vermin, and quite a few other words in various languages.

Some interesting worm factoids

– there are some 2,700 different types of worms
– an acre of land can contain over a million worms
– Cleopatra VII made the export of worms from Egypt a capital crime as she realized the important roll they play in keeping soil fertile
– Charles Darwin studied worms for many years and concluded that they are one of the most important creatures on earth.

Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, Online Etymology Dictionary, Wikipedia,, Eartworm Farming, Worm Facts

This entry was posted in Danish, English, Etymology, Irish, Language, Latin, Norwegian, Proto-Indo-European, Scottish Gaelic, Swedish, Welsh, Words and phrases.

9 Responses to The worm that turned

  1. Lau says:

    It’s true that “orm” in Swedish means snake, but in Danish it means worm. Not sure about Norwegian.

  2. TJ says:

    hmmm I didn’t know that “gorm” can mean “black” in Irish as well. Isn’t it usually “dubh”?

  3. Simon says:

    TJ – gorm is used to refer to dark skin, e.g. fear gorm = black man.

  4. TJ says:

    does that reflect somehow the point of view of the old Irish people and how they thought about the skin color?
    Sometimes the language itself reveal much about beliefs and myths of nations you know.

  5. Simon says:

    There’s some discussion about this point on the Irish Gaelic Translator forum – they suggest that fear gorm is used for black man because fear dubh traditionally refers to the devil. Another suggestion is that Arab and Moorish traders from Spain and North Africa who visited Ireland wore blue or indigo-coloured clothes, and the colour of their clothing stood out more to the Irish than their skin colour.

  6. Stuart says:

    And you may be interested that your headline phrase originates from Shakespeare… but you’d have to check out our website to find out where and how!

    Happy gardening!

  7. TJ says:

    @Simon: v. interesting! Go raibh maith agat!

  8. Petréa Mitchell says:

    A “worm runner” is (or was, at one point) a scientist specializing in the study of planaria, leading to the title of the infamous semi-serious periodical of the 1960s, The Worm-Runner’s Digest.

  9. Christopher says:

    In Danish “orm” primarily means “worm,” but it also means “serpent” in a mythological or poetic sense, including the idea of a sea serpent or a dragon. For everyday use, snake is “slange.”

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