The word 'gnomus' (plural 'gnomi') first appeared in the work of the Swiss alchemist Paracelsus in the 16th century. He may have been thinking of the Latin word 'genomus', meaning 'earth-dweller'. According to Paracelsus, a gnome is two spans long, a span being the distance from thumb to little finger tip on an outstretched human hand.
The phrase "gnomes of Zurich" for Swiss financiers was invented by Harold Wilson in 1956. What he actually referred to was "the little gnomes in Zurich and other finance centres".
Garden gnomes began as garden dwarfs in Germany in the 19th century. The first garden gnomes in the UK were brought here in 1847 by Sir Charles Isham. One of his original 21 gnomes still survives. It is called Lampy and insured for £1million. According to a recent estimate, there are 25 million garden gnomes in Germany.
'Gnome' was the codename of the Spanish communist Ramon Mercader who assassinated Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky in 1940.