Viking Vocabulary in present-day English

I’ve got some time off between jobs (three weeks to be precise) so in an ideal world there will be lots more blog posts happening! We’ll see about that.

I raided the Oxford English Dictionary to find these ten words, and to double-check the three I could remember off the top of my head. I’ve tried my best to stick to their usage of Scandinavian and Old Norse, but might have slipped up once or twice.

Note: I occasionally use OE to stand for Old English in this post.

Note 2: your local library may well have a subscription to this fantastic service! Just enter the number on your library card and see. It is a goldmine of word lore – and that’s not even counting the additional bits like the historical thesaurus!

(I’m ashamed to say it’s most of what I use my library card for, these days)

Enjoy the list!


10 Scandinavian words we still use today


  • Anger

This came straight from Old Norse angr. It first appears in the 14th century. The Old English verb for making someone angry was belgan.

  • Fellow

This comes from a Scandinavian compound word (e.g. Icelandic félag) which meant partner, specifically partner in a business/monetary context.

  • Law

Ah, I remember looking into this word during my degree. This was adopted into Old English very late (eleventh-century ish) as lagu, which is basically just the Scandinavian word. The Old English word that it replaced was ǽ . The OE word carried on for a while after the introduction of lagu, changing to mean specifically divine law, but it died out during the thirteenth century.

  • Mask

Now, it really isn’t 100% clear whether it’s a descendent from the Scandinavian loanword, or whether Scandinavian patterns just influenced the existing Old English word (which was max). For comparison, the Old Icelandic word was mǫskvi. Either way, Scandinavian languages played a big part in this word.

  • Ransack

This comes from early Scandinavian (check out some of the other forms: Old Icelandic rannsaka, Old Swedish ransaka, Old Danish randsage). It appears first in (Middle) English in the 14th century, and has many interesting meanings we don’t use anymore, such as “to examine thoroughly”, “to roughly handle a person” and [the sword] ransacked, meaning “penetrated”, his ribs. 

  • Rotten

This excellent word ( I just think it sounds satisfying to say!) is from an early Scandinavian word. See the related old forms: Old Icelandic rotinnOld Swedish rutin  Danish rådden (early 15th cent. as raden).

  • Skill

This is from the Old Norse skil meaning “difference”. This first appeared in the early 13th century, though it was adopted with an incredibly wide range of meanings. It didn’t start meaning what we use it as today until the 16th century! (ok, with one random appearance in the early 14th century)

  • Skin

This comes straight from Scandinavian/Old Norse “skinn“,  meaning pretty much exactly what it can today (bit that covers the meat … basically …). The word was obviously from older Germanic, since it exists in related forms in languages ranging from Old Breton to Middle Dutch. However the meaning was different in most of those languages, having a nastier meaning of abuse, overwork or to skin as a verb (“flay”). The commonly used Old English terms, before skin was adopted, were hyd (hide) and fell.

  • Skirt

This started off as Old Norse skyrta. There was a corresponding English form in scyrte but this developed into modern-day “shirt”. This happens quite a lot in Old Norse vs Old English: the “sk” sound is Scandinavian and Old English has “sh”instead. Skirt has had a lot of different usages over the years as well as the obvious – everything from the base of a beehive to the borders of a country and the beginning or end of a period of time. As you can see, these all fall into the idea that skirt basically can mean “edge”.

  • They

Yes, this is the pronoun “they” that we use today, and it’s not English! This word is often used when discussing how much Old Norse was integrated into Old/Middle English, since it is very rare for a language to affect the other’s pronouns. (Pronouns are a basic and every-day usage part of vocabulary) Its adoption was probably due to the corresponding Old English pronoun becoming difficult to distinguish from the “he” and “she” pronouns due to a shift in pronunciation. (How “she” became she is a whole other issue …)


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Viking Vocabulary in present-day English

Short Story: “Lost”

I submitted this a year or two ago for short story competition and got the top 20, which I was pretty pleased with. It’s Anglo Saxon if you squint, hard, and happen to know about Keighton, the lost village on Nottingham University campus.


Full text below:

Continue reading “Short Story: “Lost””

Short Story: “Lost”

Place name origin: Braintree

I’ve got a few big posts planned but I keep procrastinating about them, so here is a tiny little post on the origin of “Braintree”. This is an Essex town that I drove past a few weeks ago and was instantly intrigued by. It’s been inhabited since the Iron Age!


This seems to be a slightly contested name, since it is only first recorded in the Domesday Book, as Branchetreu. The -treu bit is, according to my dictionary, Old English treow, which, yes, does just mean tree. You also get a lot of weird spellings like:

Banktre, Braunketre, Brangtree, Brantry, Bayntre (source)

The first element is hypothesised to be a man’s name: Branca. (Note, this name isn’t recorded anywhere and is an educated guess formation.) So it might have looked something like “Brancestreow” originally.

The river Brain is a backformation from the place-name. I’ve discussed backformation before, but it’s what it sounds like – a river is (re)named after the settlement on it. I have a local example – the city of Cambridge used to be called Grantabridge ( I’m fudging the spelling a bit), over the river Granta.  The city name shifted to Cambridge and the river named shifted too, to the River Cam.

Place name origin: Braintree

Old English numbers 1 – 10

Learning a dead language seems to be very different to learning a living one. I’ve had classes in varying degrees in French, Spanish, German, Old English, Old Norse and Latin and the following was true:

  • Living languages: hello, goodbye, my name is, colours, animals and numbers.
  • Dead languages: Here are some sentences from actual texts. Please translate them.

I suppose it makes perfect sense, since you’re supposed to use the living language to communicate with people and the dead one to read old texts, but it just always made me smile. When I came home from uni and said that I was learning some Old English, people who had only studied living languages would ask me to say something in the language, or to recite the numbers 1 to 10.

So, now I will!

(Proving my case, I didn’t have this information in any of my old notes that I could find and had to look it up online.)

1 – 10 in Old English

  1. ān
  2. tƿeġen (twegen, masculine. In neuter it was tu and in the feminine case it was tƿa)
  3. Þrēo (threo)
  4. fēoƿer (feower)
  5. fīf
  6. seox
  7. seofon
  8. eahta
  9. nigon
  10. tīen


Old English numbers 1 – 10

Etymology: Lamb

Normally I don’t do these on a weekend, but “Lamb” fits with both the “cute animals” theme and Easter, so here we go. Happy Easter, and happy long weekend to anyone who doesn’t celebrate Easter.

Origins of “Lamb”

This is one of those rare words that has come to us from Old English completely unaltered. It’s just “lamb” (also lemb and lomb). It’s also variants of “lamb” in most of the old Germanic languages (Old Norse, Old Frisian, Old Saxon).

Hér is Godes lamb” – translation from Latin “Ecce Agnus Dei” in the gospel of John (1:29)


Etymology: Lamb

Etymology – Duckling

THE CUTEST BABY ANIMAL. Dissent on a postcard, please.


Unsurprisingly, this is “duck” + “ling”.


This comes from the old English word “ducan”, which only exists with the meaning of “waterfowl” once in the whole surviving Old English lexicon (=stuff we know about). It is thought that ducan came from a possible Old English verb for ducking, diving. The normal OE word for duck was ened.

Middle English had both of these words, but ened started to be used more for female ducks. Duck was usually something like “doke”, with spellings like duk, douke, dook. Drake for male ducks was recorded from the 13th century.

(Mallard, as in mallard duck, was a borrowing from French, also meaning the waterfowl.)


This is an ending that signifies … well, quite a lot of things, but in this case almost definitely it’s signifying a smaller version of something.

-ling existed in Old English, where it had functions other than cutesy nicknaming, but it also existed in Old Norse, which DID use it for this kind of thing. So it’s possible that the meaning shift was due to Old Norse influence.


Etymology – Duckling

Etymology – Kitten

Everyone’s expecting this one from me, right?

This image is two of our old cats. Don’t they look utterly adorable?


Excitingly there is a bit to say about the most adorable animal apart from mallard ducklings

It’s most likely that kitten came about from the Anglo-Norman chitoun, which was itself a diminutive (nickname) from chat. It was written in Middle English using forms such as kitoun, kyton, and kytton.

Alongside this origin, we also have the Old Norse word ketlingr which meant kitten. This too was adopted into Middle English and written in forms such as: ketelyngkitelingekytylyng and kittyllyng.

Also, according to the Viking Answer Lady website, the Vikings had pet names for cats too, much like we have “kitty” or “puss/pussy”: kisa and kis-kis.

Etymology – Kitten