The NSS Bulletin - ISSN 1090-6924
Volume 56 Number 1: 1-13 - June 1994

A publication of the National Speleological Society

Is it Gnome, is it Berg, is it Mont, it it Mond? An Updated View of the Origin and Etymology of Moonmilk
W. Rudolph Reinbacher


An analysis of the origins of words used to describe the white speleothem known as Mondmilch (moonmilk) produced etymologic incompatibilities, misconceptions in translations, and hypotheses. These led to terms based on the perceived consistency (flour or meal, paste, chalk, rock), on ancient medical uses, on peddlers names (Milk of the Holy Mary), and on belief in gnomes and alchemy. Terms relating to the moon are the oldest and most appropriate, born out of medieval literature and the influences of alchemy. The first printing of the word "Mon-Milch" was in a treatise by Gesner (1555). Montmilch, which was used between 1863 and 1975 is a now discarded spelling of Mondmilch (itself pronounced Montmilch). Montmilch is not a hybrid translation into French. The German term "Bergmilch" (hardly used since 1975) is correct only if the appropriate meaning of the word "Berg" as a mining term is applied. It became confusing in other languages when authors translated the inappropriate meaning, namely that of mountain. An etymology based on gnomes (little earth men) lacks continuity and has no basis for old, wizened, evil spirits. Mondmilch, in it dialectic variations in a fragmented Europe without unified languages, is a correct term based on the ancient connection between the moon and silver in the form of a white sublimation, and it is backed by an unbroken etymology. While nothing prohibits the use of personally favored words, reference should be made to Mondmilch (moonmilk) to clarify the international meaning in any language.

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