Talk Like a Viking! 10 Everyday English Words with Old Norse Origins
Did you know that many words we use today such as “husband,” “happy,” and “egg” are of Old Norse origin? No? Well, this isn’t surprising, as in the minds of many people the Vikings were nothing but a bunch of brutal savages. They were however more sophisticated than most people tend to believe. Their rich and powerful Old Norse language provides clear proof.
As the Vikings travelled the world they did more than rape and pillage, they spread their culture and the Old Norse language too. Some words we use every day have their roots in Old Norse. (Public domain)
The Legacy of the Vikings and their Old Norse Language
A respectable number of Vikings carried out raids in the early years of the Viking age. Later, they would undertake organized campaigns of conquest with well-trained armies. But for all their reputation as fearsome warriors, many more Vikings explored, traded, studied, and settled peacefully in other parts of Europe.
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Vikings came from Scandinavia and spoke a language called Old Norse. It’s worth mentioning here that the word “Viking” means “pirate raid” in Old Norse. For over a century, the Vikings controlled most of Eastern England, before being pushed back into the North-East of the country by King Alfred the Great. They remained in power in the North-East until the late 900s, in an area then known as Danelaw.
Amazingly, traces of Old Norse still exist in the English language today. It is estimated that almost 5,000 basic words in English (almost twenty percent) are so-called “loan words” from the Old Norse language which was spoken throughout Scandinavia (Denmark, Norway, and Sweden) as well as in Scandinavian settlements and colonies. The Old Norse language also had a significant impact on the syntax and grammar of the Old English language, and thereby also modern English. The following are popular words that you probably didn’t know had an Old Norse origin.
Many people believe that the Vikings were merely a bunch of brutal savages, but many more of them explored, traded, studied, and settled peacefully throughout Europe. Their Old Norse language spread throughout the areas where they settled. (Public domain)
Wrong: Even though most of us hate to be wrong about something we think we got right, we have to inform you that in case you thought “wrong” is a purely English word, you are terribly incorrect! The word derives from the Old Norse word rangr that the Danish later transformed it to vrang, and the English eventually incorporated the word “wrong” into their everyday language.
Cake: A cake is a sweet baked food made from a dough or thick batter usually containing flour, sugar, eggs, and a raising agent. The majority of us love eating it and it’s our favorite treat on our birthday. What many of us probably don’t know, however, is that the word derives from the Old Norse kaka which the Vikings used to describe a little cake.
The Vikings were known to kidnap foreign women during their travels, as depicted in this 1894 painting by Évariste-Vital Luminais of 9th century Vikings (Norma pirates). However, they were more than brutal savages and the influence of their Old Norse language on the English language remains today. (Public domain)
Egg: Which came first, the chicken or the egg? A truly charming problem because no matter how bad you may want to dismiss it as a stupid question, you fully realize it's not a stupid question. Even though we can’t be sure about which one really came first, many researchers say the word “egg” is derived from the Danish word æg. However, other scholars suggest that this word derives from the ancient Greek word egius, which means the beginning of life.
Ugly: When the Vikings wanted to describe someone unattractive they would use the word uggligr, which has its origins in the word meaning “to fear” which is ugga. In other words, if a Viking didn’t possess the necessary fighting skills to intimidate his enemies, his ugliness could upgrade him to a fearsome warrior.
The word ugly has its origins in an Old Norse word which means “to fear.” Could ugliness upgrade a fighter into a fearsome warrior? (UiS Arkeologisk Museum)
Husband: By modern society’s standards, a good husband would be someone who always puts his family first. He’s generally expected to be a selfless man who can’t rest until he knows the ones he loves are okay. The problem is that we can’t be too sure if the Vikings had that type of husband in mind when they came up with the Old Norse word húsbóndi, which translates to “master of a house,” from hús “house” and bóndi “occupier and tiller of the soil.”
Knife: Sharp and dangerous, having a knife at hand helps you to respond to virtually any cutting task even in modern times. That might be something as simple as opening a blister pack, or something more critical (for food lovers as myself) as hacking through a delicious steak. It’s almost certain that a typical Viking probably did a little more with his knife (let’s not get into detail), but that’s not the surprising part, really. Vikings also invented the word for knife, which derives from the Old Norse knífr.
Viking knife, based on Viking finds exhibited in the Jordvik Viking Centre. (Petter Bøckman/CC BY SA 3.0)
Happy: What is happiness, and how can we make ourselves happier? Apparently, happiness is not only hard to measure, but it is also difficult to singularly define. You can’t define happiness without using a synonym for happiness, and you can’t interpret it to everyone’s satisfaction. What we know for a fact, however, is that the word “happy” derives from the Old Norse word happ which was used by Ragnar Lodbrok and his crew when they spoke about good fortune.
Window: Several architects might tell you that a home without windows is a “blind” home - and surprisingly the Vikings appear to be some of the first people who fully realized that. How else could you explain the fact that the word “window” derives from Old Norse vindauga, thus vindr "wind" and auga "eye.”
Thursday: Thursday might not be as good a day as Friday or Saturday for most people, but it’s still a good day in most workers’ books. However, most probably ignore that Thursday is the most badass day of the week. Why? Well, its name is derived from the Old Norse Þorsdagr, meaning "Thor's Day". Yep, you guessed that right! Thursday was named after the Norse god of Thunder, Thor from Norse mythology.
The word for Thursday comes from “Thor’s Day”, named for the Old Norse god of Thunder. (Public domain)
Gift: Countries could collapse and wars could rage, but chances are people will still find a way to give gifts during the holidays or special occasions. The reason why many people love exchanging gifts so much may go far beyond religion or even tradition, as various scientific studies have shown that giving and receiving gifts is in our DNA after all. Of course, the Vikings weren’t the first in history sensing that, but they were the ones who gave the world the word “gift” which comes from the Old Norse word gipt to the English language.
Who said that Vikings only liked to steal and pillage?
Top Image: A happy Viking. The word ‘happy’ has Old Norse origins. Source: Sergio /Adobe Stock
Updated on February 18, 2021.
Oxford English Dictionary. Available at: http://oed.com
Theodoros Karasavvas. (2017). Ragnar Lothbrok: The Ferocious Viking Hero that Became a Myth. Ancient Origins. Available at: http://ancient-origins.net/history-famous-people/ragnar-lothbrok-ferocious-viking-hero-became-myth-008177