139 Old Norse Words in the English Language

139 Old Norse Words That Invaded The English Language

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When I say “Old English” what comes to mind? The ornate, hard-to-read script? Reading Beowulf in your high school English class? The kinds of figurative compound nouns – or kennings – like “swan of blood” and “slaughter-dew” that have sustained heavy metal lyrics for decades?

Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon, was a language spoken by the Angles and the Saxons – the first Germanic tribes to settle the British Isles. They were not the first inhabitants, as any Welsh or Gaelic speaker will tell you, but their language did form the basis for the Angle-ish we speak today. But then why can’t we modern-day English speakers understand Old English? In terms of vocabulary, grammar and syntax, Old English resembles its cousins Dutch and German more than it does modern English. So how did English change so drastically?

The short answer is that the English language changed forever after the Norman invasion brought a new ruling class of French speakers to the British Isles in 1066. French was the language of the nobility for the next 300 years – plenty of time for lots of French words to trickle down to the merchant and peasant classes. For example, the Anglo-Saxons already had words for “sheep” and “cows”, but the Norman aristocracy – who usually only saw these animals on the plate – introduced mouton (mutton) and boeuf (beef). Today, nearly thirty percent of English words come from French.

As a result, modern English is commonly thought of as a West Germanic language with lots of French and, thanks to the church, Latin influence. But this history of English’s development leaves out a very important piece of the linguistic puzzle – Old Norse: the language of the Vikings.

How To Speak Viking

The Old Norse noun víking meant an overseas expedition, and a vikingr was someone who went on one of these expeditions. In the popular imagination, the Vikings were essentially pirates from the fjords of Denmark and Norway who descended on medieval England like a bloodthirsty frat party; they raped, pillaged, murdered, razed villages and then sailed back across the North Sea with the loot.

But the truth is far more nuanced. The earliest Viking activity in England did consist of coastal raids in the early ninth century, but by the 870s the Danes had traded sword for plow and were settled across most of Northern England in an area governed by treaties known as the Danelaw. England even had Danish kings from 1018 to 1042. However, the more successful and longer-lasting Norman conquest in 1066 marked the end of the Viking era and virtually erased Danish influence in almost all aspects of English culture but one: its effect on the development of the English language.

Traust me, þó (though) it may seem oddi at first, we er still very líkligr to use the same words as the Vikings did in our everyday speech. Þeirra (their) language evolved into the modern-day Scandinavian languages, but þeir (they) also gave English the gift of hundreds of words.

[A note on the letter þ: the Old Norse letter, called thorn, makes the same sound as the “th” in “thin”.]

Names of Days

The most obvious Viking influence on modern English is the word Thursday(Þorsdagr), which you can probably guess means “Thor’s day”.

“Tuesday”, “Wednesday” and “Friday” are sometimes also attributed to the Norse gods Tyr, Odin and Freya, respectively; but the days are actually named for the Anglo-Saxon equivalents of these gods, Tiw, Wodan and Friga. The similarity of these names points to the common ancestry of the various Germanic tribes in prehistoric northern Europe – centuries before their descendants clashed on England’s shores.

War & Violence

If the Vikings are famous for one thing, it’s their obsession with war. They didn’t just bring death and destruction to England in the Middle Ages, they brought really cool words for death and destruction. They were certainly a rough bunch. Just look at a Viking the rangr way, and he might þrysta (thrust) a knifr into your skulle.

  • berserk/berserker – berserkr, lit. ‘bear-shirt’. A berserkr was a Viking warrior who would enter battle in a crazed frenzy, wearing nothing for armor but an animal skin.
  • club – klubba. People have been bashing each other with heavy things since time immemorial, but not until the Danes started bringing this weapon down on English heads did this blunt weapon receive its fittingly blunt name.
  • ransack – rannsaka (to search a house)
  • These days, the adjective scathing is reserved for sharp criticism, but in the context of the original meaning of scathe (to injure), skaða takes on a much more visceral quality.
  • slaughter – slatra (to butcher)
  • Even though the gun wasn’t invented until centuries after the Viking era, the word comes from Old Norse. The most common usage was in the female name Gunnhildrgunn and hildr both can translate as “war” or “battle”. Only truly badass Vikings named their infant daughters “Warbattle”.

Society & Culture

But life in the Danelaw wasn’t all murder and mayhem. Ironically, these savage berserkers also gave us words that are central to our “civilized” culture:

bylaw – bylög (village-law) sale – sala
heathen – heiðinn (one who inhabits the heath or open country) skill – skil (distinction)
Hell – In Norse mythology, Loki’s daughter Hel ruled the underworld. steak – steik (to fry)
husband – hús (house) + bóndi (occupier and tiller of soil) = húsbóndi thrall – þræll (slave)
law – lag thrift – þrift (prosperity)
litmus – litr (dye) + mosi (lichen; moss) tidings – tíðindi (news of events)
loan – lán (to lend) troll
saga yule – jol (a pagan winter solstice feast)

Animals

Although most English animal names retain their Anglo-Saxon roots (cow, bear, hound, swine, chicken, etc) the Vikings did bring certain animals names into the vernacular:

  • bug – búkr (an insect within tree trunks)
  • bull – boli
  • reindeer – hreindyri
  • skate – skata (fish)
  • wing – vængr

Some words associated with hunting and trapping also come from Old Norse. Sleuth now means “detective”, but the original slóth meant “trail” or “track”. Snare, on the other hand, retains the original meaning of O.N. snara.

The Landscape

Old Norse is good at describing bleikr landscapes and weather. This was especially useful in the Vikings’ adopted northern England, where flatr or rogg (rugged) terrain can be shrouded in fok, and oppressed by gustr of wind and lagr (low) ský(clouds).

Much of the Danelaw bordered swamps and alluvial plains, so it’s no surprise that many Norse words for dirty, mucky things survive in English:

  • dirt – drit (excrement)
  • dregs – dregg (sediment)
  • mire – myrr (bog)
  • muck – myki (cow dung)
  • rotten – rotinn

The Norse Legacy in English

Thanks to the cross-cultural fermentation that occured in the Danelaw – and later when England was temporarily absorbed into Canute the Great’s North Sea Kingdom – the English language is much closer to that of its Scandinavian neighbors than many acknowledge. By the time that the Norman conquest brought the irreversible influence of French, Old English had already been transformed beyond its Anglo-Saxon roots.

This is still in evidence today; modern English grammar and syntax are more similar to modern Scandinavian languages than to Old English. This suggests that Old Norse didn’t just introduce new words, but influenced how the Anglo-Saxons constructed their sentences. Some linguists even claim that English should be reclassified as a North Germanic language (along with Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Swedish), rather than a West Germanic language (with Dutch and German). The Viking influence may be most apparent in the Yorkshire dialect, which uses even more Norse words in daily speech than standard English does.

English is probably too much of a hybrid to ever neatly classify, but its Old Norse rótis clearly there among the tangle of Anglo-Saxon, French and Latin roots. The language of the Vikings may have become subdued over the centuries, but make no mistaka about it – from byrðr (birth) undtil we deyja (die) – Norse’s raw energy simmers under the surface of everything we say.

More Norse Words

VERBS
bark – bǫrkr rid – rythja (to clear land)
bask – baðask (reflexive of baða, “to bathe”) run – renna
billow – bylgja scare – skirra
blunder – blundra (to shut one’s eyes; to stumble about blindly) scrape – skrapa
call – kalla (to cry loudly) snub – snubba (to curse)
cast – kasta (to throw) sprint – spretta (to jump up)
choose – kjósa stagger – stakra (to push)
clip – klippa (to cut) stain – steina (to paint)
crawl – krafla (to claw) stammer – stemma (to hinder or dam up)
gawk – ga (to heed) sway – sveigja (to bend; to give way)
get – geta take – taka
give – gefa seem – sœma (to conform)
glitter – glitra shake – skaka
haggle – haggen (to chop) skip – skopa
hit – hitta (to find) thwart – þvert (across)
kindle – kynda want – vanta (to lack)
race – rás (to race, to move swiftly) whirl – hvirfla (to go around)
raise – reisa whisk – viska (to plait or braid)
OBJECTS
axle – öxull (axis) loft – lopt (air, sky; upper room)
bag – baggin mug – mugge
ball – bǫllr (round object) plow, plough – plogr
band (rope) raft – raptr (log)
bulk – bulki (cargo) scale (for weighing) – skal (bowl, drinking cup)
cake – kaka scrap – skrap
egg seat – sæti
glove – lofi (middle of the hand) skirt – skyrta (shirt)
knot – knutr wand – vondr (rod)
keel – kjölr window – vindauga (lit. “wind-eye”)
link – hlenkr
ADJECTIVES THE BODY
aloft – á (on) + lopt (loft; sky; heaven) freckles – freknur
ill – illr (bad) foot –fótr
loose – lauss girth – gjörð (circumference)
sly – sloegr leg – leggr
scant – skamt (short, lacking) skin – skinn (animal hide)
ugly – uggligr (dreadful)
weak – veikr
PEOPLE EMOTIONS
fellow – felagi anger – angr (trouble, affliction)
guest – gestr awe – agi (terror)
kid – kið (young goat) happy – happ (good luck; fate)
lad – ladd (young man) irk – yrkja (to work)
oaf – alfr (elf)
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Just a Dream

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Just a Dream

I was running, panting, and out of breath. I just couldn’t run anymore. He was behind me right on my heels. I had to get to the other side and quickly. I came to the end and I saw three Doors. I didn’t know which one was which. I had to get away and get away fast. It was eenie meenie miney mo on the go. I chose the door on the right. I don’t know why it just seems like that was where I supposed to go. I had this vibe, this intuition, telling me that safety was beyond that door. As I opened the door, a strong wind was whipping around the other side and trying to suck me in. The wind wasn’t colorless it was all different bright colors. I knew immediate death was imminent if I didn’t cross that threshold. The man with the ax had caught up to me.
“Don’t go through that door, young lady.” he growled.
“All you have to do is submit to me and this ax here doesn’t have to become your new best friend.” he slyly said with a half grin on his face.
I froze just from his words. I knew I had to make some sort of move.
I looked at his disheveled face and then noticed the blood dripping from the ax. With my hand on the knob I turned around and jumped into the whirling vortex of air with my eyes closed.
I said a prayer knowing this was my end. As the wind sucked me in, my whole body jerked like a seizure. My eyes opened and I was back home in my bed, panting and sweating. I looked at the clock to see the time and it had only been 5 minuted since I fell asleep. The clock displayed 2:17 and if you turn that number upsidedown it looks like LIZ. Elizabeth is my first name, but everyone calls me Liz.

Just a Dream

Word of the day for Thursday, July 3rd

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estivate
ES-tuh-veyt

–verb

1. to spend the summer, as at a specific place or in a certain activity.

2. Zoology. to spend a hot, dry season in an inactive, dormant state, as certain reptiles, snails, insects, and small mammals.

Quotes

So as the people we knew back East die, or are institutionalized, or take themselves off to Tucson or Sarasota or Santa Barbara to estivate their last years away as we are doing here, our contacts here shrink, too.
— Wallace Stegner , The Spectator Bird , 1976

Hibernate. Or estivate. Depends on whether I do so in the winter or the summer.
— Ian Watson , Lucky’s Harvest , 1993

Origin

Estivate derives from the Latin aestīvāre , with aestīvus meaning “relating to the summer.”

Monday’s word of the day…gnomist

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gnomist
NOH-mist

–noun

a writer of aphorisms.

Quotes

In casting mere shadows on the dial, the gnomist as gnomom will conceal more truth than he reveals. His aphorisms may be subtly off-key…
— W. David Shaw , Babel and the Ivory Tower: The Scholar in the Age of Science , 2005

He was one of the Gnomists or seven sages of Greece, and the most eminent of his countrymen.
— Reverend David Blair , Outlines of Chronology, Ancient and Modern: Being an Introduction to the Study of History , 1865

Origin

The term gnomist entered English in the late 1800s. It finds its roots in the Greek gnṓmē meaning “thought, opinion, intelligence.”

What character was removed from the alphabet?

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What Character Was Removed from the Alphabet?

Johnson & Johnson, Barnes & Noble, Dolce & Gabbana: the ampersand today is used primarily in business names, but that small character was once the 27th part of the alphabet. Where did it come from though? The origin of its name is almost as bizarre as the name itself.

The shape of the character (&) predates the word ampersand by more than 1,500 years. In the first century, Roman scribes wrote in cursive, so when they wrote the Latin word et which means “and” they linked the e and t. Over time the combined letters came to signify the word “and” in English as well. Certain versions of the ampersand, like that in the font Caslon, clearly reveal the origin of the shape.

The word “ampersand” came many years later when “&” was actually part of the English alphabet. In the early 1800s, school children reciting their ABCs concluded the alphabet with the &. It would have been confusing to say “X, Y, Z, and.” Rather, the students said, “and per se and.” “Per se” means “by itself,” so the students were essentially saying, “X, Y, Z, and by itself and.” Over time, “and per se and” was slurred together into the word we use today: ampersand. When a word comes about from a mistaken pronunciation, it’s called a mondegreen.

(The ampersand is also used in an unusual configuration where it appears as “&c” and means etc. The ampersand does double work as the e and t.)

Are there other symbols or letters you would like to learn about? Let me know in the comments section below and I’ll look into it!

Have a wonderful Wednesday and until then, keep a smile on your face 🙂

All My Best,
Jill aka 1morganlefaye

7 Chinese Loanwords to expand your vocabulary

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Feng shui

Feng shui is the Chinese art of creating harmonious surroundings that enhance the balance of yin and yang, or negative and positive forces in the universe. This term comes from the Chinese words literally meaning “wind” and “water.” Architects and designers have been using the principles of feng shui to help situate buildings and graves and arrange rooms since ancient times, though the word did not enter English until the late 1700s.

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Qi

Scrabble players are sure to recognize the term qi but are less likely to know its meaning. In Chinese philosophy this term refers to vital energies within all living things in the form of breath and bodily fluids. It’s thought that a balance of qi is essential to maintain good health. It literally translates to “breath” and is believed to be regulated by acupuncture.

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Gung-ho

Gung-ho was introduced into English in 1942 via US Marine officer Evans F. Carlson, who had previously spent time in China. Carlson used this term, which literally translates to “work together,” to lift the morale of the military men he led. These men were often referred to as the “Gung Ho Battalion.”

Words 4-7 will be up in a following post later! Hope you enjoy!
All My Best,
Jill
🙂

Which Two-headed God is January Named After?

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January is often considered the month for deep reflection. We look back at the year behind us, bemoaning our regrets and celebrating our successes. And then, we look forward to the future year. We make well-meaning resolutions and hope for the best.

So, in this way, we’re all a little bit like Janus, the Roman god for which January is named. Janus is usually depicted with having two heads. that face in opposite directions. One looks back to the year departed, and one looks forward to the new and uncertain year ahead.

The poetic term John Keats coined that describes living your life while accepting that it is filled with uncertainty seems apropos to this transitional time.

The god Saturn bestowed upon Janus this ability to see into the future and past. His name comes from the Latin word ianua, which means “door.” Janus is the god of doors, gates, doorways, bridges, and passageways, all of which symbolize beginnings and ends. Janus also represented transition, such as the time between youth and adulthood.

Misspelling of the Year 2013 (great article from Dictionary.com, Enjoy!)

Misspelling of the Year 2013
To explore the psyche of a people, do not look at what they do–look at what they do wrong. Today, we introduce the Misspelling of the Year. A word that was looked up misspelled significantly more this year than the year before. A word with lots of different misspellings. A word in the news. The word: furlough.

In 2013, Dictionary.com saw tens of thousands of lookups of this word, often spelled without the ugh. Though the correct spelling is furlough, three variants ballooned in lookup volume: furlow was looked up 66 percent more in 2013 than it was in 2012, and furlo was looked up 60 percent more. We can’t calculate how many more times ferlow, which was in the top 10,000 words of 2013, was searched for because no one was searching for it in 2012.

The main reason folks were talking about furloughs was the October shutdown of the US government (sequester and sequestration searches also jumped 2.3 and 2.8 times relative to last year, but no one was misspelling those).

As for the misspellings. Well, it’s a rough road. The first uses in English were close to the Dutch: vorloffe and fore-loofe in the 1630s. You also get furloghs, furlows, and foreloffs in the early centuries of its use. Why on earth would we pronounce it “oh” but spell it “ough”? Cough cough. That’s tough. Though I have a few thoughts. Let’s step under this lovely bough. (It’s not as bad as it could be: hiccup was standardly spelled as hiccough for a few hundred years.) There are a lot of ways to say ‘g’, but we can’t go into all of them here.

Furlough wasn’t the only word that was giving folks trouble in 2013. In reviewing Dictionary.com’s misspellings of the year (I’d prefer to call them “nonstandard spellings” but the Spelling Despots among you would be at me with pitchphorks), three categories for types of misspellings emerged:

Prefix/suffix troubles

PERJUDICE and PERDJUICE for prejudice (think “pre judge” not “smoothie of perdition”)
PERCISE for precise (the -cise here is like in incision, so think “pre cut”)
ADAMIT for adamant (think “Wolverine has adamantium claws, not adamittens”)
AMETURE for amateur (the ama is about love, the -teur is for a doer, like actor in French is acteur; so think “French lover”)
Missing letters

AQUAINTED for acquainted (from the 1300s to about 1600 it didn’t have a “c” in English, you were born too late)
IFARED for infrared (awesome, don’t ever change)
TONSILECTOMY for tonsillectomy (two tonsils, two l’s to remove them)
ACHIEVMENT for achievement (spell “achieve” then add “ment”)
HIERACHICAL for hierarchical (sound it out?)
Just plain hard

EARY for eerie (at the end of the 18th century, suddenly English writers decided this word really needed a double “e,” sorry)
THROROUGH for thorough (this is probably just a typo)
INDITE for indict (the ending is related to dictionary or dictate–it’s talking about “saying,” you’re declaring an accusation)
IMAGRATION for immigration (look for “migrant” inside the word)
Studying nonstandard spellings also suggests some words that need to exist. An argu(e)ment can be made that assertation is a misspelling of assertion, but I would like to think it means something else. Like when someone just goes on and on asserting stuff to point that it feels like they’re reading you a dissertation.

But the word that is the best word in the whole data set and most needs your use and definitions: indiscrepancy. Go get it, Internet.