If You Know the Difference Between “Dragon” and “Wyrm”…

you might be a fantasy geek…

but you are most assuredly a language geek.

As an ardent fan of fantasy and science fiction, I am often exposed to authors who use the words dragon and worm (frequently spelled wyrm) interchangeably. Occasionally, the word drake is thrown in for good measure. Perhaps the most famous author to use dragon/worm, and sometimes drake, synonymously in their work is J.R.R. Tolkien. At least, it was while reading the French translation of his book, The Hobbit, that this pairing caught my attention.

A passage on Thror‘s map, that follows the title page, reads as follows:

Loin au Nord

sont les Montagnes Rocheuses

et

La Lande Desséchée

d’ou vinrent

les Grands Vers

It is a straightforward translation of the English original:

Far

to the North

are

the Grey Mountains

&

the Withered Heath

whence came the

Great Worms.

but notice the word vers (worms) in bold. Until I read this in French, I had not given much thought to the idea that worm can also refer to dragon in fantasy fiction. Curious about this, I sought to understand why English has this archaic sense of worm and if this sense is shared in the French language. Satisfying this curiosity began my love affair with the history of the English language.

The first recorded instance of the pairing dragon/worm is in the epic poem Beowulf.

Hwäðre him gesælde, þät þät swurd þurhwôd wrätlîcne wyrm, þät hit on wealle ätstôd, dryhtlîc îren; draca morðre swealt.

Wyrm is the Old English (Anglo-Saxon) that means “serpent” and may share an Indo-European root with the Latin vermis (worm). Draca is another Latin import into Old English that carries a similar meaning, “large serpent.” Through the years, both of these words have undergone changes. Wyrm had an orthographic change into the modern worm. Draca eventually transformed into drake. This is not, however, the same drake that refers to a male duck and has an entirely different etymology. Although draca and dragon share the same Latin root, it appears that the French dragon didn’t entered the English language until after the Norman invasion in 1066.

I’m unfamiliar with the history of this synonymy in the centuries between Beowulf and The Hobbit but it is obvious that dragon became the most common word to denote the winged, fire-breathing beasts we’ve all come to know and love. Worm and drake were both relegated to a place in archaism. Beyond The Hobbit, this synonymy is present in the settings of other fantasy novels as well as fantasy role-playing games. This synonymy has also produced wyrmling, usually meaning a small or baby dragon.

The history of dragon/worm, then, is a uniquely English story. Therefore, the question still remains as to the French translator’s choice to use ver (worm) in a reference to dragons. Was this just a straight literal translation without an understanding of the connection between dragon and worm in English linguistic history (as it appears to be)? Or is there a similar pattern in French romans fantastiques?

According to Le Trésor de la Langue Française informatisé (TLFi), ver, in the form of verme, referred to the larvae of certain insects from as early as 980AD. Others have ver originating with the Latin vermis (worm). It would appear, therefore, that the English wyrm and the French ver have a similar historical root but significantly divergent original meanings. Etymologically speaking, I’ve yet to find a connection between ver and dragon.

What about a stylistic connection in literature? I read French fantasy novels as often as I can and, admittedly, am a slow reader. I have not yet, however, found a similar trend in French fantasy literature that uses ver as a reference to dragon. Until such time as I do, I’ll consider the issue as just a literal translation…and thank the translator for the seed of inspiration. Merci beacoup!

© 2012 Jay P Laughlin

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