You Speak Like a Viking! 10 Everyday Words in English 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. But they were more sophisticated than most people tend to believe. Their rich and powerful Old Norse language provides clear proof.
The Lesser-Known Legacy of the Vikings
A respectable amount 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.
Vikings Heading for Land by Frank Dicksee, 1873. ( Public Domain )
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.
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‘Les pirates normands au IXe siècle’ (Norman pirates in the 9th century) by Évariste-Vital Luminais (1894). ( Public Domain )
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 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 Old Norse origin.
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, then you are terribly incorrect! The word derives from Old Norse “rangr” that the Danish later transformed it to “vrang,” and the English eventually used it as “wrong”.
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 for our birthday. What the majority 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.
Chocolate cupcakes. ( 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” deriving from the word “ugga” which means “to fear.” 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.
Diorama with Vikings at Archaeological Museum in Stavanger, Norway. ( CC BY SA 4.0 )
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.’
Artist’s impression of a Viking camp. ( Vance Kovaks )
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 the 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.”
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Thursday: Thursday might not be as good 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.
"Thor in Hymir's boat battling the Midgard Serpent" (1788) by Henry Fuseli. ( 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” - as it derives from the Old Norse word “gipt.”
Who said that Vikings only liked to steal and pillage?
Vikings. Summer in the Greenland coast circa year 1000. ( Public Domain )
Top Image: Artist’s depiction of a Viking King. Source: RealNerd
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