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WONDERFUL WORDS

NORSE LINGO

By Janet Spencer
  • The Old Norse noun “viking” meant an overseas expedition, and a “vikingr” was a sailor who went on one of these expeditions. Today many English words can be traced to Norse roots.
  • The word “berserk” comes from the Old Norse word meaning “bear skin.” How did bear skin come into our language meaning “frenetically violent or deranged”? It seems that Old Norse warriors wore bear skins into battle. They also tended to partake of hallucinogens before battle in order to erase their fears and inhibitions and make them a fierce opponent. When they rushed into the fray looking frightful in the bear skins and hollering insanely, their foes came to associate the bear skins with the outrageous behavior.
  • When sailing, the greatest speed is attained when the sails are angled so the wind fills them completely. If the captain of the ship wants to stay still rather than going somewhere, he asks the steersman to turn into the wind. Now the wind slips by the sails without filling them and the ship comes to a halt, going nowhere. The Norse were a great seafaring nation, and the Norse word for wind is “loef,” which came into Old English as “loufe.” This is the origin of the word luff, meaning to flap listlessly when the wind is blowing equally on each side of the sail. Add to this the prefix “a” which means “without” (as in “amoral”) and you have a common modern word that means to remain detached, to hold back, or to refrain from becoming involved, just as a ship that is facing into the wind holds back : aloof.
  • In Norse mythology, Loki’s daughter Hel rules the underworld and “to go to Hel” is to die. You’re likely to go there if you’re a heathen, from the Norse “heioinn” meaning one who lives in the remote and sparsely populated heath.

NORSE LINGO

  • Off the coast of Norway there’s a chain of islands called the Lofoten Archipelago. Here, several forces clash: the Gulf Stream sweeps by the coastline; the islands are separated by narrows only a few miles wide; the ocean floor around the islands is far shallower than in the surrounding sea; the difference between high tide and low tide is about 12 feet; the tide moves in and out at about 12 feet per second; and fierce winds sweep the area. This combination of extreme forces causes wild and dangerous currents in ocean waters. When one mass of water in motion meets another mass of water that’s moving differently, whirlpools form. This happens every day when the tides change in narrow channels. The Lofoten whirlpools are the strongest in the world, being about 30 feet wide and 15 feet deep, moving in circles at about six nautical miles per hour. They present a very real danger to ships caught in the current. Many ships have succumbed to the strongest tidal currents on Earth that form around the islands, trapping unwary sailors. Norse sailors named this dangerous place “malenstroom” from the words “malen” meaning to grind or whirl around, and “stroom” meaning stream. Today this word has come into our language meaning any violent or turbulent situation: maelstrom.
  • The Norse “gunne” means “war” and “hildr” means “battle.” Combine the two and you have “Gunnhildr” or “Gunhilda” which became a common name for a girl, meaning “war maiden.” In the mid-1300s, England’s Windsor Castle was defended with a large catapult-type weapon that soldiers nicknamed “Domina Gunilda” or “Lady Gunhilda” in the same way a modern soldier might nickname a large cannon “Big Bertha.” Gunilda then became a term referring to any weapon that launched rocks, arrows, missiles, or bullets from a hollow tube. Over the years, it was shortened to the simpler word “gun.”