The very word “salamander” is linguistically interesting, and what better forum to discuss that topic than this blog? In both Latin and Greek, “salamandra” initially meant a mythical creature that could live in fire, and it’s not clear whether the word always referred to the actual living animal (although I suspect that frightened salamanders fleeing wood thrown onto medieval hearths originally ignited and helped fuel the myth). “Salamander” used to carry the virtuous meanings of “a woman who lives chastely in the midst of temptations” (sometimes frustratingly true for anyone trying to get salamanders to mate for an experiment) and “a soldier who exposes himself to fire in battle” (their kamikaze nature is obvious to anyone who has seen salamanders try to cross a road or a bike path). Furthermore, to “rub someone a salamander” was a German student drinking toast (source: Online Etymology Dictionary). Thus we have survival, chastity, courage, and beer, all good things, and all befitting those noble amphibians, so full of inner peace and wisdom.
Other cultural baggage doesn’t fit so well. “To gerrymander” is to redraw electoral district boundaries to maximize political gain, named for the oddly shaped district created by 19th century Massachusetts governor Elbridge Gerry, which someone thought looked like a salamander (historical note: it didn’t). In Thomas Wharton’s odd and largely unsatisfying novel, “Salamander,” the word is important in part because it contains the Arabic word “alam,” meaning the whole world. Which is fine, but what does that really have to do with salamanders? On the other hand, what do most of the posts on this blog have to do with salamanders? Maybe we all just like the sound of the word.
Many scholars have noted that language evolves just like species do (Lewis Thomas was the most eloquent author on this point). Evolutionarily, salamanders are noted for morphological stasis but fresh innovations in behavior and biochemistry. Perhaps there are parallels with the word, which has taken on new meanings but still refers to that moist beast that some ancient tribal European might have named when it slipped out of a fallen log set ablaze.