I was re-reading my favorite piece of scripture, Psalms 22, from a copy of the Geneva translation, and found myself interpreting the English translation of 22.6 with some distinct difference after studying some Anglo-Saxon words. 22.6 is as follows (Geneva Bible):

But I am a worm, and not a man: a shame of men, and the contempt of the people.

Almost all early modern English translations use the word "worm" (the original Hebrew is תוֹלַעַת, but that is not relevant to this question)

Now onto my question: According to OED the word "worm" initially meant:

worm (n.) Old English wurm, variant of wyrm "serpent, snake, dragon, reptile," (...)As an insult meaning "abject, miserable person" it dates from Old English.

This question speaks on the matter further.

This is intriguing to me, since with the meaning of "wyrm" as in "serpent" and "dragon", I, instinctively, think of "that old serpent, called the devil" from Revelation 12.9 and 20.2

12.9 And the great dragon, that old serpent, called the devil and Satan, was cast out, Which deceiveth all the world: he was even cast into the earth, and his angels were cast out with him.

This got me to thinking, might the "serpent" meaning of "wyrm" have been known to the early-English translators? (Tyndale, Bancroft, those for Bishops and Geneva, etc.) And thus is there a chance they may have been alluding to the word "worm" not only as the more literal meaning of being base and meek upon the colossal feet of men, but also as in the miserable and despised Devil, who as Milton put it best: "Me miserable! which way shall I fly Infinite wrath, and infinite despair? Which way I fly is Hell; myself am Hell;"--Thus when the psalm says "I am a worm, and not a man" he is as base as a serpent of hell (lower than any living thing). The serpent might certainly be seen as "the contempt of the people" and "a shame" since it was the "ancestor" of all serpents who condemned human-kind in the loss of Eden, and yet is it not miserable? When God condemned the serpent, who in many biblical 15th-century paintings has arms, and sometimes even legs, to slither on its belly?

3.14 Then the Lord God said to the serpent, Because thou hast done this, thou art cursed above all cattle, and above every beast of the field: upon thy belly shalt thou go, and dust shalt thou eat all the days of thy life.

THIS IMAGE MIGHT BE CONSIDERED SOMEWHAT DISTURBING (I mean not to offend anyone, just to give evidence on why a serpent might be miserable for losing its arms and legs:) The Fall of Adam and Eve, Hugo van der Goes 1470

enter image description here

So, my question is: hypothetically, could the early English translators of the bible have had the old-English meaning of "wyrm" in mind? Otherwise stated, would the old-English meaning still have been known or relevant enough with the Tudorian, Elizabethan, and Jacobean English-language mind, that a double-meaning might have been possible?

Just for the sake of it, the Genevan footnote reads

And seeming most miserable of all creatures(...)

If this question seems more fitting for Literature I would agree on having it migrated. But since this is an etymological question, my gut told me EL&U would be ideal.

  • 3
    What about asking here: hermeneutics.stackexchange.com
    – user 66974
    Oct 5 '20 at 19:02
  • Apparently, the Hebrew associates scarlet with grub / maggot. But off-topic. Oct 5 '20 at 19:49
  • 5
    I’m voting to close this question because it asks essentially about Hebrew; Hermeneutics.SE is where to ask it. // Modern Bible translators are well aware of the etymological fallacy (and contextualisation). Oct 5 '20 at 19:50
  • 1
    @Cascabel - Ah..,. thanks, Jeremiah 29:13.
    – Greybeard
    Oct 5 '20 at 20:27
  • 1
    Turning a lowly worm into a frightening dragon or a powerful devil distorts the plain meaning. Who mocks or insults a dragon, or shakes their heads at the Devil? Oct 5 '20 at 21:07

The OED provides evidence of the now archaic "dragon" or "serpent" meaning as recently as 1867:

1867 W. Morris Life & Death of Jason x. 176 Therewith began A fearful battle betwixt worm and man.

For modern English, the dictionary has examples from 1475, 1526, 1616, 1667, 1716, 1778, 1785 and 1867, indicating it would be likely 16th century translators understood the serpent usage.

Indeed, the 16th century example is from Tyndale's bible itself:

1526 Bible (Tyndale) Acts xxviii. 4 When the men off the countree sawe the worme hange on hys honde.

It seems, then, that with rather full certainty we can say that Tyndale knew the dragon-meaning of worm. It is also likely that his contemporaries did as well.

To answer the further question of whether they intended the allusion, we'd should know what synonyms for worm existed in the 16th century. Were there synonyms the translators could have used but chose "worm" in favor of?

My quick look through the OED's historical thesaurus offers the following potentially relevant synonyms for earthworm:

  • maddock, examples in 15th century, seems to refer more often to maggots
  • easse, first example in 1582
  • mad, first example in 1586

It doesn't seem, then, that the translators had many other choices to translate the original – indicating that while they knew the dragon allusion, they were not necessarily intending (perhaps similarly to how if you were to use the word worm today.

Also, this is premised on the idea that the Hebrew clearly refers to earthworms. Wiktionary, today, translates תוֹלַעַת as worm, but how did early Modern English translators understand the word? Were they literally, regardless of allusion, referring to earthworms? Or were they referring to something else or more vague?

  • @Cascabel my only remaining argument besides the point that I did not intend to base this question on Hebrew, but devoutly on asking what was the mindset of the Tudorian, Elizabethan, and Jacobean early English Bible translators, thus asking a historical, and etymological question based on early modern English, and also since I received a very exceptional and eloquent answer from Unrelated which I fittingly marked as the answer of this question. But lastly, as well, I feel this question may be intriguing to any early modern English reader, who wants to look deeper in the use of the word "worm" Oct 5 '20 at 22:24
  • In writing the answer I didn't look up Acts 28:4, which, in fact, references a viper
    – Unrelated
    Oct 5 '20 at 22:54
  • Is the 1778 reference to the publication of "The Laidly Worm of Spindleston Heugh" in a compilation of folk songs in that year? I was going to mention that ballad as an example of the use of 'worm' to mean something powerful and frightening but also loathsome and disgusting.
    – BoldBen
    Oct 6 '20 at 8:44
  • @BoldBen Indeed it is!
    – Unrelated
    Oct 6 '20 at 14:56

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