The English language has a nerve claiming to be Anglo-Saxon or a pure-breed of any sort. It’s a mishmash of dialects, languages and one-off words that come from several migrating nations—both into the British Isles and from the various nations Britain colonized—dating back to Roman times. And one of the largest influences on the development of modern-day English comes from the Vikings.
They came from Denmark, Sweden and Norway, partly to rob, partly to invade and settle, and the legacy of language they left behind remains indelibly marked in English dictionaries to this day. They even managed to secure two of the days of the week—Thursday – Thor’s Day and Tuesday – Tiw’s Day—although claims that Wednesday—Wodan’s Day—also counts are thought to be wide of the mark, as Wodan/Odin proves to have been a common figure in all Germanic and Norse mythology.
Here are 10 examples of words the Vikings taught us, whether we wanted them to or not:
From the old norse rannsaka, which means to search a house, this is clearly a word that has come to betray more about how the owners of the houses felt to have been searched, than the merits (or otherwise) of the search itself.
A vindauga is a wind-eye, referring to the ability to see things coming up outside of your home while remaining sheltered inside it. Very descriptive group, the Vikings.
Comes from slatra and, fittingly, that’s the Norse verb for butchery.
Lopt is the Norse word for the sky, heaven and a loft, while á means on. So bearing something aloft means to carry them up to heaven, or the sky, or put them away until next Christmas.
A portmanteau word in which hús (house) and bóndi (occupier and tiller of soil) are fused together into a single term that is curiously quiet on the subject of wives. Húsbóndi means house-occuper (and gardener).
The word blundra means to shut your eyes and therefore to walk around banging into things. The extra layer of meaning—to “blunder” is to make a clumsy mistake—came later, but suits the word perfectly.
Pharrell Williams didn’t manage to get this into his song, but happ is the Old Norse word for good fortune or fate. So if you’re happy (and you know it), that is because you’ve been blessed with good luck.
Never has a word been so aptly coined. The Vikings called those people who lived on heathland or open country heiðinn, and the inference is clearly that they are hicks, backwood sorts, who have not benefitted from recent advances in modern living. That the word was later taken up by Christians and used to describe non-Christians from less civilized nations is just a reiteration of the term’s snooty origins.
This isn’t referring to fragmented sections on a fish’s skin or the system for organizing musical notes; we’re talking weighing scales. The name for these comes from skal, a word for a bowl or drinking cup. And if you’re thinking there is something familiar about this, that’s because skol (or skål) is a Viking drinking toast.
Not content with half-inching a good portion of the words that now constitute their language from their Viking invaders, the English purloined several festive customs from Scandanavia too, including jol, a pagan feast set in the depths of the winter solstice.
Watch the Viking invasion of BBC AMERICA with the premiere of the epic new series The Last Kingdom, Saturday (October 10) at 10/9c. Check out the trailer.