mid-14c., salamandre, "legendary lizard-like creature supposed to live in fire," from Old French salamandre "legendary fiery beast," also "cricket" (12c.), from Latin salamandra, from Greek salamandra, a kind of lizard supposed to be an extinguisher of fire, a word probably of eastern origin or, as per Beekes, of Pre-Greek origin.
The application in zoology to a tailed amphibian (known commonly as an eft or newt, but these words are sometimes applied only to the water-salamanders), is recorded by 1610s. Aristotle, and especially Pliny, are responsible for the fiction of an animal that thrives in and extinguishes fires. The eft lives in damp logs and secretes a milky substance when threatened, but there is no obvious natural explanation for the myth. The word also was given as a name to a type of imaginary elemental of fire (1680s).
With some technical extensions to things used in connection with the fire or used when very hot (1660s). Also used 18c. for "a woman who lives chastely in the midst of temptations" (after Addison), and "a soldier who exposes himself to fire in battle." A salamander-stove (1842) was a small portable stove used to heat a room. To rub someone a salamander was a 19c. form of German student drinking toast (einem einen salamander reiben).
Related adjectives: Salamandrous (1711); salamandrine (1712); salamandroid (1854); salamandry (c. 1600).
updated on October 09, 2022