(n.) the sound of woodworms invisibly chewing away timber
If you can’t easily explain something, just blame it on elves. Or at least, that appears to have long been the case in the English language.
Elf-milling is an old term for the sound of woodworm, recorded in a handful the dialects of northern England and Scotland. Because the worms are typically buried deep inside timber, out of sight, the sound they produce can’t easily or visibly be accounted for. So as a result, it was presumed to be the work of invisible elves working away at an equally invisible mill.
“At a few places,” the English Dialect Dictionary explains, “on listening at a hole in the ground, a sound is heard which imagination thinks that of the clapper of a mill. I have often listened to the most celebrated of the elf-mills, and the sound is that of running water.”
The image of elves diligently toiling away at the ‘clapper’ of a mill (that’s a device for encouraging the grains to roll down into the millstones) might seem like a wholesome one, but apparently the sound of the elf-mill itself wasn’t all that encouraging. As the EDD also explains, according to folklore this was a sound that was ‘viewed as a warning of death’. Oo-er.
Why such a grim association? Two reasons. The first is that the sound emanating out of infested timber was sometimes reckoned to sound like the ticking of a watch, and so was considered something of a memento mori; it’s for good reason that one of the critters responsible is the so-called deathwatch beetle.
Secondly, we like to think of elves as either the kindly secret helpers of poor cobblers, or in the same way Tolkien did—stoic, honourable, decent, tall, fair, and no stranger to a set of hair straighteners. But the elves of old Germanic tradition were anything but. They were mischievous, malevolent critters who would do anything to make your day a little harder—and as a result, a lot of snags and annoyances used to be attributed to elvish influence in our language.
Hiccups, for instance, were once elf-chokes. A tangle or knot of hair was an elf-lock. An elf-shot was a painful sore in the leg of a farm animal, supposed to have been caused by an elf’s arrow. An elf-bore was a weak point in a plank of wood, where a knot had fallen out. An elf-fire was a will-o’-the-wisp, a distracting natural fluorescence that might perilously attract someone or something into marshland. Someone who was elf-taken or elf-stricken was somehow bewitched or enchanted by some invisible influence. A ruptured or enlarged spleen was even once known as an elf-cake.
Clearly, the elves of our folkloric past were busy doing a lot more than milling away our wood.