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Interesting Etymologies 47.2 : Old Norse

"Hello again Word Lovers!"

We continue with Old Norse a great fount of words in modern English. We have already seen that we get many common words from Old Norse in our previous episode and we didn't even mention both, want, sky, skin (some more sk words there) and they, them, their.

Let's look at some of the less common words we get from Old Norse:

Berserk (Berserker) : literally means "a bear shirt" berserkr. A Viking warrior who wore only animal skin and no armour.

These warriors of legend would head out in front of their army to show the enemy they had no fear. And why should they? They had amazing weapons such as their :

Club : Klubba - a heavy, blunt weapon

Gun : gunn from female name Gunnhildr : gunn (war) - hildr (battle). The word is seen in English around the mid 14th century as an engine of war that throws rocks, arrows or other missiles from a tube by force of explosive powder. But why would a woman's name become the name of a weapon? There is a tradition of giving weapons female names, this is seen as late as the twentieth century. Some famous examples include Big Bertha in the first world war or the Mons Meg on display in Edinburgh Castle.

Ransack: rannsaka - to search a house. In English this has come to mean a search to steal items that causes damage.

Scathe: skaða - to hurt damage or injure. It still means the same in English today.

Bylaw: The word law is from Latin but Bylaw for local law comes from Old Norse bylög - village law.

Heathen: A non Christian is also from Old Norse heiðinn - which means one who lives on the heath or open country.

Sale and Loan both come from Old Norse as well as Litmus : lit-mosi litre (dye) + mosi (moss)

Skill: skil which meant distinction

Steak: steik which meant to fry. But this is controversial. It is widely understood that steak means roasted on a spit, stick a piece of meat on your stick and cook it. This can be traced to a PIE root Steg (meaning pole or pointed stick) and is an example of a very ancient word that has come to us virtually unchanged.

"Thr" at the beginning of a word is another indicator of Old Norse roots:

Thrall : To be enthralled to something, you are a slave to it, this is from þræll - slave.

Thrift: To be careful with your money from Old Norse þrift meaning prosperity.

Troll: An Old Norse word that has returned to popularity in the internet age

Yule: The Old word for the Christmas period is from jol a pagan winter solstice feast. (Check out the IE Christmas Special for more festive word fun)

Words for some animals and some dirty "things" also come from Old Norse:

Bug: búkr - an insect within tree trunks. Obviously this has become a more generic word for "creepy crawlies" in modern English. There is a belief that this may have come from Scottish bogill - goblin or Welsh bwg - ghost, goblin.

Bull: boli

Reindeer: hreindyri

Skate: skata the fish

Wing : vængir

More spelling indicators, -dr words:

Dirt: drit - excrement. Again the English word has expanded to cover soil, mud and the adjective to not be clean.

Dregs: dregg - sediment.

Mire: myrr originally another word for bog but has come to be used as a marshy, swampy piece of ground or a difficult or unpleasant situation.

Muck: myki was cow dung which again gives us the generic word for filth or dirt in English.

Rotten: rotinn

Some verbs that went directly into English:


Old Norse


bǫrkr - although this is more likely the noun tree bark


baðask - to bathe oneself


bylgja - billow or wave


blundra - to shut your eyes


kalla - to call or shout


kasta - to throw or cast


kjósa - to choose


krafla - to scrabble around in earth


klippa - to cut


ga - to pay attention to


glitra - to glitter or shine


haggen - to chop


hitta - to find


stammr - to hinder, to dam up


steinn - stone


stakra - to stagger


skrapa - to scrape/scratch


skirra - to frighten or to scare


snubba - to curse


spretta - to jump


sveigja - to bow


​sœma - to seem, befit, be becoming


skaka - to shake


skopa - to jump, to play, to dance


rás - a running race


reisa - to raise

Rid (to get rid of something)

rythja - to clear the land


vanta - to lack


hvirfla - to go around


viska - to wipe or to sweep


þver - across

Explore the full Interesting Etymologies series archive here

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