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 …)


If you found this post interesting, let me know by commenting or liking here or on Facebook. Thanks for reading!


Viking Vocabulary in present-day English

Close cousins – the days of the week

Hi all! Today I’m going to show you how certain languages are very closely related using the days of the week.

If you’d guessed that I’ll be talking about Old English (OE) and Old Norse (ON) then you’ve learn what I enjoy, well done, but I’ll also be looking a bit more widely. Because that’s fun too.

First things first. OE and ON are members of a language family called Germanic. This doesn’t mean that they are all descended from German, though!

I’ve read that this language family is called “Germanic” partly because many of its languages fall into the geographic area the Romans called Germania, and partly because most of the 19th century heavyweight thinkers who solidified the idea of languages “relating” to each other, like families or species, were German and regarded those languages as “a central branch” (small mention here).

If the idea that languages can be related seems a stretch to you, then congratulations you were never forced to learn both Spanish and French simultaneously. This theory is the idea that all languages are descended from other languages. To pick a common example, all of the Romance languages, so, French, Spanish, Italian, Romanian and so on, are descended from Latin.

(No really, it goes on. The Romans got everywhere, and so their Latin was subject to countless different regional (and in the case in Ladino, ethno-religous) variations. Look at this list from Wikipedia! I didn’t even know some of these languages existed!

So, the Germanic language family is another load of related languages. Let’s go through a few.

So I’ve already said Old English is in that group. Old English gave rise to English (of course) and Scots (depending on your political views, don’t fight me). There’s also two extinct languages used in Ireland, Yola and Fingallian. And of course thanks to Britain’s invading imperialist colonialism (hello are my politics showing? oh dear) English is the ancestor to absolutely loads of creole languages, including the very widely used Hawaiian, Jamaican Patois and Singlish.

Old Norse too has its fair share of descendants: Danish, Swedish, Norwegian, Faroese, Greenlandic, and Icelandic. (Icelandic is particularly cool because it is very much still Old Norse. They can read the Icelandic sagas without much trouble. Delightfully un-evolved language.) There was also Norn, which I’ve mentioned before when talking about Orkney surnames, and Russian and Norse traders did create a pidgin (which is a smushing together of languages together to try and reach a mutual understanding) called Russenorsk.

As you’d expect, modern German is also in this language family, and Dutch (and thus Afrikaans).

Ok, I’m probably the only one finding this language genealogy interesting, so let’s skip to the direct comparisons!

(Full confession, if you want to skip my rambling and just have a look yourself, I am largely using the relevant Wikipedia article.)

The Germanic days of the week are to an extent just pagan-ised versions of the Latin, since Roman gods were replaced by their Germanic “equivalents”. That in itself is very interesting, since it comes from both directions: the Germanic people noticed the similarities and adopted the Romans gods into their systems, and the Romans encouraged this because it meant that they could keep their pantheon across their whole empire, thus creating a symbol of “we are the same people”.

The Anglo-Saxons and the Vikings (to use my fall-back examples)  didn’t have exactly the same gods, but from what we know they had similar gods and you can see this in the names.

The modern Icelandic days of the week don’t fit the same pattern as their relatives so I’ve not used them here; they feel foul of an anti-paganism attempt by this guy.

So. To the similarities!

First, the Latin and the relevant gods:

dies Lunae, dies Martis, dies Mercuri, dies Iovis, dies Veneris, dies Saturni, dies Solis

  • Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus, Saturn, Sun

Old English

Monandag, Tiwsdaeg, Wodensdaeg, Thunresdaeg, Frigedaeg, Saeternesdaeg, Sunnandaeg

  • Moon, Tiw, Woden, Thunor, Frige, Saturn, Sun

Old Norse

manadagr, tysdagr, odinsdagr, thorsadgr, frjadagr, laugardar, sunnadagr

  • Mani, Tyr, Odin, Thor, Frigg/Freyja, washing-day, Sun


Modern Norwegian (Bokmal)

mandag, tirsdag, onsdag, torsdag, fredag, lordag, sondag

Modern German

Montag, Dienstag, Mittwoch (was Wutenstag), Donnerstag, Freitag, Sonnabend, Sonntag

Hopefully you can see from these that not only did those languages all use pretty much the same gods in the same way, they also still show that they have a common ancestor. Even if you look at their words for “day” you can see it looks similar throughout.

Thanks for reading!

Close cousins – the days of the week

Hunts place-names – The Fens

Happy Easter Monday, everyone! Those of you who had today off work, I hope you made the most of it, and those of you who did not, I hope you were well fuelled by chocolate. Or religion. Or both.

This is part of my little mini series on a sample of Huntingdonshire place-names, where I look at what they were originally named and discuss what this could mean about the area (for example, what was farmed there?) or the people living there (who were they?).

(Catch up with part 1part 2part 3  and part 4 or browse my whole place-names tag)

Today I’m going to be introducing you to several place-names in the area of Huntingdonshire (and other counties) called The Fens which discuss notable landscape and environment features.

An acquaintance of mine has an excellent podcast about the myths and creepy stories around the fens, so you should check it out here, or search Fencast on Twitter!

  • Ramsey – Garlic Island

I discussed Ramsey yesterday in the plants section, so just to remind everyone:

Earliest spelling: Hramesege from roughly the year 1000. It’s made up of two Old English words: hramsa, ‘garlic’, and e.g. for ‘island’.

“Island” as you might have guessed is the word of interest here. This didn’t necessarily mean that everywhere around Ramsey at the time was underwater, since it could also mean an area of land which was higher than everywhere surrounding it. Given that the Fens are incredibly low-lying, both interpretations are possible.

© Copyright  David Deardenand licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

You can see from the little lane just to the right hand side of this picture that the land where Ramsey Abbey sits, which presumably was the first and most central part of the settlement, was raised from the Fens surrounding it.

If anyone does know the inundation state of the lands around Ramsey, do let me know! In the meantime it’s on my list of things to research.

  • Holme – Island

The fancy word for this type of name is simplex


because it only has one element. That element is from Old Norse (finally, it’s not Old English!!) and it’s holmr. It means almost exactly the same as Old English eg for Ramsey, so, island/dry ground in marsh. It probably wasn’t hard to be raised higher than the surrounding lands, since according to a bit of Googling the Holme Fens contains the lowest point in the whole of the UK. Wikipedia says that it is 2.75 metres (9.0 ft) below sea level. I can’t find a decent map of the area which shows land levels, which is really annoying.

  • Fenton – Fen Farm

This tiny settlement near Ramsey  was first recorded in 1236 as Fentun. Pretty simple here, it’s Old English fenn and Old English tun. The interesting thing is that several of my sources query what exactly fenn meant. One just calls it an area specific dialect term for  marshy ground. Given that the entire area for miles around is marshy, and that this settlement is tiny so probably didn’t have huge importance (look at me and my generalising without evidence; I’d be shot for this at uni), why this settlement was actually named fenn is unknown. Mystery!

  • Fenstanton

Another fenn name! This one interesting for a slightly different reason. So, we’ve got the settlement first recorded in 1012 as Stanton and then over 200 years later in 1260 as, Fenstanton. Fenn + stan for stone + tun, which as we’ve seen many times before in this series means farm or enclosure. I think this may actually be the least changed name I’ve ever come across.

It’s not quite the puzzle of Fenton because this place wasn’t named for fenn. We can clearly see in the recorded names that it was called Stanton first and only had the Fen added on much later.

I’m still intrigued though as one of the points from above still basically stands – why would you add a prefix which means marshy to a name in an area which is overwhelmingly marshy? Names are meant to distinguish settlements from each other! What did fenn mean??

Fun fact, the first person I’ve found with the surname or byname (see here for the difference between the two) Fen is “Willielmus de Fenbrig”, who was in a list of fines. Tut, tut. Piqued my interest though – there’s no modern place-name I can find called Fenbridge. Lost place-name?? Does anyone know of a street or field with a name like this?

  • Morborne – Marsh River

This tiny village near Yaxley is first recorded in an almost identical form: Morburne in 1086 (Domesday Book again). This is made from OE mor which means ‘marsh’ combined with OE burna. People of a Scottish persuasion might be able to figure out that second element without being told – yup, I’m pretty sure that word is the direct ancestor of Scots “burn” for stream. In an Old English context, a burna was used for a small waterway which wasn’t big enough to be called ea ‘river’.

In conclusion, every post I come up with new questions! When this daily challenge is over I will have a lot of material for future research, that’s for certain.

Thanks for reading. Please feel free to comment, pass it on to anyone with fabulous local knowledge, or just ‘like’ it on social media. See you tomorrow!

Hunts place-names – The Fens

Hunts place-names – Language

Welcome back to part 2 of my little series on a sample of the place-names from the historic county of Huntingdonshire. I’ll look at what they were originally named, and whether this can tell us anything about the area.

See part 1, on places originally named after people, here.

(Plug: Ask me your village/town name in the comments or on social media and I’ll look it up and tell you stuff about it! Places all over Britain welcome.)

Today I’ll show you how a few of the village/town names aren’t as English as you might have thought!

I’ll be putting these in roughly chronological order, so let’s discuss those categories first. If you know it all and want to skip to the names, feel free to click here!.


This is thought to have been a language spoken in Britain before the Celts arrived. So we’re talking probably hm, before about 700BC? 800BC? For comparison, this is roughly the period when the Greeks developed their alphabet (and by developed I mean nicked it off the Phoenicians, who got it from the Egyptians, and no-one’s quite sure where Sumerian fits in … ok so I like the history of the alphabet too, sue me). Anyway, the point I was going for is that names which use anything categorised as Pre-Celtic are really, really old. They are generally river names, which is the case in Huntingdonshire.


This is the language thought to have been spoken in Britain when the Romans invaded. (Romans were in Britain from 43 to 410.)

Old English/Anglo-Saxon

This was spoken by the Anglo-Saxons. The earliest record of them in Britain (in a position of power) was 441. I don’t think there is any evidence names anywhere in the country from that long ago, though. The question of when Old English ended is thorny but for simplicity’s sake I’ll go with traditional general views and say the twelfth century (1100 – 1199)

Old Norse/Scandinavian

This was spoken by the Vikings! gets shot by every single lecturer ever Ok, this was spoken by the settlers and also the raiders who came to live in Britain between the late 8th and 10th centuries. Fun fact, the settlers on the east coast of England were largely Danish, unlike those in Ireland and the North West (and Scottish Isles) who were largely Norwegians.

Middle English

Again to generalise drastically, this is thought of as what Old English developed into in England after the huge Latin and Romance influence from the Norman invasion of 1066. It’s the phase when, adjusting for spelling, you can generally read it without having to learn it word for word like you do Old English. Assume a rough start date of the twelfth century, and various netbooks are telling me the end date is 1475 – 1500. This basically corresponds with the printing press revolution, which standardised spelling properly.


Some of you might, if you’re paying attention, be scowling right now and asking why Latin is this far forwards in my list when the Romans were here for, like, 400 years. That is a valid concern and the Romans did definitely name places in Britain in Latin. However, the Anglo-Saxons got rid of I think pretty much all of them. There certainly aren’t any in my sampled names in Huntingdonshire! So the Latin in place-names largely comes from the same era as the French – it’s those pesky Normans again!

Most of my sampled names are Old English, but there is at least one example of everything above. Let’s go!


The name of the village COLNE comes from the name of a nearby stream. It’s so old that we don’t know its meaning, as we don’t with many Pre-Celtic words.


The “Hail” in HAIL WESTON is a name meaning “dirty water” and was a previous name for the River Kym. (People started calling the river Kym after nearby Kimbolton.)

Old English

I’ve picked EARITH to represent the Anglo-Saxons, just because the translation makes me giggle. It’s made up of ear, which means muddy, and hyth, which means landing place. Obviously enough poor Anglo-Saxons got covered when they tried to get out of the River Ouse that it got named for it. Does anyone know if Earth is still muddy???

Old Norse

There isn’t a massive amount of evidence for Norse settlement in Huntingonshire. We know it happened, but there’s not a massive amount left for us to see. There are a couple of interesting place-names in that respect, but for now I’ll just talk about COPPINGFORD. The earliest form we’ve got for it is from the Domesday book, which is Copemaneforde. This is the Old Norse word for merchants: kaupmanna, plus of course the recognisable ford. But the reason that this is great is because the -nna ending on that word is a bit of Old Norse grammar which means belonging to (like the possessive apostrophe, or if you know German or Latin it’s the genitive case.)

That means that we can be pretty sure that Coppingford was named by Old Norse speakers. Whether they were the first to settle there, whether they just traded there a lot, or whether the name just replaced another unknown one, we don’t know, but I do think that’s pretty cool.

Concrete evidence of Norse presence in Huntingdonshire!

Middle English

WOODHURST is another favourite of mine. First recorded as Wdeherst in 1209 – no that’s not a typo, or if it is it’s about 800 years old and definitely not my fault. It’s made of two elements: Middle English wode and Old English hyrst. But here comes the daft bit. Wide means wood. Hyrst means wooded hill. So, Wood Wooded Hill. What??

Easy and also interesting explanation: originally this must have been called Hyrst. When people stopped understanding Old English, they just added a distinguishing word onto it. So there you go; a name springing from a misunderstanding!

(Other points raised: was there another Hyrst/Hurst around that Middle English speaking people wanted to distinguish it from? And was that area of woodland particularly important or rare, given that both names mention it?)


The only Latin lying around in my corpus comes in the form of distinguishing adjectives as happened to LITTLE PAXTON and GREAT PAXTON. Originally this was made up of the Old English name Paecc and that Old English tun suffix. Now, I don’t know why two settlements reasonably far away from each other have the same time, nor which one came first. Or maybe at one point they were the same place ad the middle section has disappeared? I don’t know, does anyone?

Anyway, so, by the 13th century, we see in the records that these two places are Magna Paxton and Parva Paxton. The fact that today they are called Great and Little suggests that all the scribe was doing there was translating those already existing words straight into Latin. He wasn’t even doing a great translation job, since my dad who loves Latin rather a lot assures me that adjectives should come after their nouns.


And finally, French!

The only usage of French in my sample (and I think probably the most common usage in Cambridgeshire overall) is in what’s known as “manorial suffixes”, which basically just means that when the French came in and were given stole lots of land, they added their family or land name at the end to identify the land as theirs.

Easy examples: OFFORD DARCY and OFFORD CLUNY. Darcy comes from a French family, and Cluny comes from a well-known French Abbey.


Thanks for reading! Please let me know if you’re enjoying this new idea. 🙂

Hunts place-names – Language

Ohthere’s Voyage

The number of Anglo-Saxon themed books on my Amazon wish list is getting daft, it really is. Rather than bore you by complaining about how much I want them all, complete with lists, or even more boringly, talk about the ones I already own, I thought I would focus in and tell you my admittedly largely un-academic reasons for wanting one in particular:

Ohthere’s Voyages: A Late 9th-century Account of Voyages Along the Coasts of Norway and Denmark and Its Cultural Context

I first came across the tale of Ohthere and Wulfstan as a third year undergraduate student at Newcastle University, studying English Language. I had finally started studying the module which was a huge part of the reason I picked Newcastle to begin with: Old English. We were learning from Peter Baker’s excellent book, Introduction to Old English, and eventually we reached the point of trying to translate from Old English the story of these two voyages. (I found a potentially useful map on those journeys on the Norwegian Wikipedia article, fyi). These were told to King Alfred (yes that one, who was also all for increased literacy) and inserted into the Old English translation of a Latin history of the world.



The reason that this was so interesting to me is that it was the first encounter I had read about between Old English (people) and Old Norse (people). Previously I had only really been interested in the Anglo-Saxons, and had actually read more about their interactions with the Franks than their more northerly cousins.

Our teacher, Professor Diana Whaley, threw in an offhand mention that Ohthere was the Old English version of his name, and that in Old Norse it would have been something like Otar. (This is filtered through my 4 year old memories, all errors are mine alone). This was a “WOW!” moment for me. I’ve always loved etymology and cognate words, and suddenly realising how close Old Norse and Old English had been was thrilling.

It got even cooler in my Master’s degree, where I discovered that there had been massive influence on Old English by Old Norse. Cue me getting very overexcited in my Old English in History seminar about the Kirkdale Sundial, which shows Norse influence in Old English words, and waxing lyrical in my World of Vikings seminar about Matthew Townend’s book: Language and History in Viking Age England: Linguistic Relations between Speakers of Norse and English. I do occasionally get sad about the fact that I never did anything in-depth on the two languages. It’s just so cool.

Maybe next time I’ll do a little 101: You Weren’t Crazy Enough To Study This Stuff on words that you might not have known came from Old Norse. Like skirt (which meant “shirt”), sister, or kirk (nope, not originally Scottish!). Or the verb to take!

So yes, I want that book largely for nostalgic reasons, because it promises to go into fantastic contextual detail about something which kickstarted my interest in all things Anglo-Scandinavian. (this has reminded me how much I also still want that Townsend book too: despite reading it from cover to cover at uni it’s not actually joined my civilian pile yet). I’m forever promising myself that one day I will start writing historical fiction in the later Anglo-Saxon era, and Scandinavians would definitely play a huge part in that.

If anyone reading this also has a massive Amazon wishlist I should check out, or a book which likewise changed their interests, please feel free to comment below!




Ohthere’s Voyage