Departments: There’ll always be an England

In the NYT on the 21st, this entertaining story by Sarah Lyall: “Common Gnomes Pop Up at Rarefied Flower Show, to Horror of Many”, where it is reported that:

it was not surprising that the staid Royal Horticultural Society‘s decision to allow garden gnomes — creatures commonly associated with the landscapes of the unrich, the unfamous and the untasteful — at the Chelsea Flower Show this year elicited a variety of responses.

… Gnomes, which are called “brightly colored mythical creatures” in the handbook governing the show, are not really part of the Chelsea aesthetic. (Nor are balloons, flags, “feather flags,” or “any item which, in the opinion of the society, detracts from the presentation of the plants or products on display,” the handbook reads.)

Four topics come up in the article: social class in the UK; the two words gnome (and gnomic etc).; conversion of proper names to count nouns; and playful gnome-related morphology.

A pair of gnomes at Chelsea:


The caption in the Telegraph: “Gnomes are striking a blow against garden snobbery”.

1. Social class. Lyall refers to the association of garden gnomes with “the unrich, the unfamous and the untasteful” — that is, with people of the lower classes. Social class distinctions color daily life in the UK in a way that they don’t in the US. In this case, the Chelsea Flower Show is an event for the upper classes, so garden gnomes “are not really part of the Chelsea aesthetic”, as Lyall carefully puts it. Chelsea is posh, gnomes are tacky.

2. There are gnomes and then there are gnomes. There are two nouns gnome in English. Gnome #1 is irrelevant for gardeners. From OED2:

A short pithy statement of a general truth; a proverb, maxim, aphorism, or apophthegm (< Greek γνώμη thought, judgement, opinion)

Whence gnomic #1:

Of the nature of, or consisting of, gnomes or general maxims. Also spec. with reference to Old English verse. gnomic poet, a composer of gnomic verses.

Then gnome #2, which is the relevant one for gardeners:

One of a race of diminutive spirits fabled to inhabit the interior of the earth and to be the guardians of its treasures; a goblin, dwarf [invented, or at least spread, by Paracelsus]

Whence gnomic #2:

= gnomish adj.; also occas., being a gnome, dwarf-like

From Wikipedia on gnome #2:

A gnome … is a diminutive spirit in Renaissance magic and alchemy, first introduced by Paracelsus and later adopted by more recent authors including those of modern fantasy literature. Its characteristics have been reinterpreted to suit the needs of various story-tellers, but it is typically said to be a small, humanoid creature that lives underground.

Garden gnomes: After World War II (with early references, in ironical use, from the late 1930s) the diminutive figurines introduced as lawn ornaments during the 19th century came to be known as garden gnomes. The image of the gnome changed further during the 1960s to 1970s, when the first plastic garden gnomes were manufactured. These gnomes followed the style of the 1937 depiction of the seven dwarves in Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs by Disney. This “Disneyfied” image of the gnome was built upon by the illustrated children’s book classic The Secret Book of Gnomes (1976), in the original Dutch Leven en werken van de Kabouter. Garden gnomes share a resemblance to the Scandinavian tomte and nisse, and the Swedish term “tomte” can be translated to “gnome” in English.

So garden gnomes, so called, are a relatively recent development. But they’ve become tremendously popular. From Lyall:

“There are a lot of people who are gnome fanatics, who will literally buy any gnome going,” said Sally Chambers, décor brand manager at Solus, a company offering gardening-related products that has sold 200,000 gnomes in its Woodland Wilf line since 2009.

Customers have multiple Wilfs to choose from, including Wilf lying on a leaf, Wilf watering the plants, Wilf sheltering under a mushroom and Wilf playing golf.

The gnomes above are Wilfs.

(There are specialized lines of gnomes — for instance, assault gnomes, which are fully armed; zombie gnomes, of course; and gay gnomes, including male couples fucking (so, tasteless at two levels) — that are unlikely to pass muster at Chelsea.)

3. Conversion from proper to count. Notice multiple Wilfs in the passage just above, in which the proper name Wilf is treated as a count noun, and pluralized. There are several routes to this conversion: there can be several people with the same name (“I have known three Joel Cohens in my life”); a single person can be viewed in more than one way (“There are at least two Barack Obamas”); or, as in the Wilfs case, a single individual can appear in multiple representations. There is one (fictional) character named Wilf, with a constant physical appearance and (so far as we can judge these things) personality, but representations of Wilf are available with him in different costumes and contexts.

(The other characters in the Woodland Wilfs and Friends line are almost all woodland animals: a duck, robin, frog, hedgehog, owl, rabbit, snail, squirrel.)

4. Gnome-related vocabulary. From later in Lyall’s piece, with the notable words boldfaced:

As part of its new gnome-friendly policy, the horticultural society gave a group of gnomes to a group of celebrities, who then decorated them (Elton John gave his huge sunglasses with pink rhinestones).

… Referring to his wife, [Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen] added: “Also, Jackie has had to overcome her poshness and confront her gnomophobia.”

“I’ve learned that there’s no place for gnomism in my life,” Ms. Llewelyn-Bowen said.

Gnome-friendly (like gnome-related) is a compound adjective of the form N + Adj (roughly glossable as ‘Adj TO Ns’) — a very productive patern in English.

Then comes the playful gnomophobia, with the combining form -phobia, sometimes conveying ‘fear of’ but quite often ‘aversion to’, ‘dislike of’, or ‘hatred of’. (See this posting, on homophobia.)

Finally, the playful gnomism, with the derivational suffix –ism (“one of the most prolific word-creating elements in the language”, according to Michael Quinion’s affixes site), denoting “a system, principle, practice, doctrine, or ideological movement” (Quinion again) — in this case, an anti-gnome doctrine, although in other contexts it could refer to the practice of placing gnomes in your garden.

I don’t have any gnomes in my own gardens, though I would seriously consider a leather daddy gnome, a pornstar gnome (displaying his package), or a drag queen gnome.


One Response to “Departments: There’ll always be an England”

  1. Gnome puns | Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

    […] on my posting on gnomes at the Chelsea Flower Show, Andy Rogers remarked on Facebook that he had a garden Noam, and […]

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