The word comes from Renaissance Latin gnomus, which first appears in the works of 16th Century Swiss alchemist Paracelsus. He is perhaps deriving the term from Latin gēnomos (itself representing a Greek γη-νομος, literally "earth-dweller"). In this case, the omission of the ē is, as the OED calls it, a blunder. Alternatively, the term may be an original invention of Paracelsus.
Paracelsus uses Gnomi as a synonym of Pygmæi., and classifies them as earth elementals. He describes them as two spans high, very reluctant to interact with humans, and able to move through solid earth as easily as humans move through air.
The chthonic spirit has precedents in numerous ancient and medieval mythologies, often guarding mines and precious underground treasures, notably in the Germanic dwarves and the Greek Chalybes, Telchines or Dactyls.
In Romanticism and modern fairy tales Edit
The English word is attested from the early 18th century but remains obscure until the early 19th century, when it is taken up by authors of Romanticist collections of fairy tales and becomes mostly synonymous with the older word goblin.
In 19th century fiction, the chthonic gnome became a sort of antithesis to the more airy or luminous fairy. Nathaniel Hawthorne in Twice-Told Tales (1837) contrasts the two in "Small enough to be king of the fairies, and ugly enough to be king of the gnomes." Similarly, gnomes are contrasted to elves, as in William Cullen Bryant's Little People of the Snow (1877), which has "let us have a tale of elves that ride by night, with jingling reins, or gnomes of the mine."
One of the first movements in Mussorgsky's 1874 work Pictures at an Exhibition, named "Gnomus" (Latin for "The Gnome"), is written to sound as if a gnome is moving about, his movements constantly changing in speed. Franz Hartmann in 1895 satirized materialism in an allegorical tale entitled Unter den Gnomen im Untersberg. The English translation appeared in 1896 as Among the Gnomes: An Occult Tale of Adventure in the Untersberg. In this story, the Gnomes are still clearly subterranean creatures, guarding treasures of gold within the Untersberg mountain.
As a figure of 19th century fairy tales, the term gnome by the 20th century became largely synonymous with other terms for the "little people", such as goblin, brownie, kobold, leprechaun, Heinzelmännchen and other instances of the "domestic spirit" type, losing its strict association with earth or the underground world.