Llandudno Bay is flanked by two steep headlands sticking out into the sea, the Great Orme ɔːm and the Little Orme. As we gazed on the Great Orme, one of my friends asked me the etymology of ‘Orme’. I said I thought it was probably a form of worm. I was aware that in the Gower in south Wales there is a promontory called Worm’s Head, and I had a sort of feeling that orm was the Norse or Danish word for ‘worm’.
I was nearly right. But my questioner wasn’t satisfied. How, then, she asked, was this great headland similar to a worm, an earthworm?
What I had forgotten was that the English word worm used to mean ‘serpent, snake, dragon’. Orm still has that meaning in Scandinavian languages, though in English this sense had died out by about 1800.
It is easy to imagine how seafarers could liken this headland to a dragon or a snake.
According to Owen and Morgan, Dictionary of the Place Names of Wales, the Orme at Llandudno is from ON ormr ‘snake’, but Worm’s Head in the Gower is from OE wyrm.
The Welsh name for the Great Orme is Y Gogarth. Fancifully, I wondered if that had any connection with arth ‘bear’ (cognate with Greek ἄρκτος árktos), with an intensifying go- and a hypercorrect initial prevocalic -g- as in gwyneb for wyneb ‘face’. Then it could mean ‘great bear’. But no, apparently the earlier form was gogerdd, meaning merely ‘ledge, terrace’. Very disappointing.