They, their, them, eggs and freckles!

By Maeve Maddox

Sharon’s post The Scandinavian Connection lists fifteen words, all nouns, that have come into English from Swedish and Norwegian. The earliest word in her list, flounder, came into English in 1592. The most recent, quisling, was coined as recently as 1940.

As interesting as these words are, they’re only the tip of the iceberg. Our debt to the language of the Northmen goes back to the days when King Alfred and his successors persuaded the Vikings to stop bashing heads and settle down in the north of England.

Because Old English and Old Norse were kindred languages, the co-existence of the races had some interesting linguistic results.

Borrowed words are usually nouns, verbs, and adjectives, but Scandinavian borrowings in English extend to pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions and adverbs. We even owe the plural form are to the influence of the Vikings.

Here are just a few of the words we borrowed from the Northmen way back in time:

nouns
birth, booth, egg, fellow, freckle, leg, skin, skirt, window
adjectives
awkward, flat, ill, loose, low, meek, odd, rotten, sly, tight, weak
verbs
call, crawl, die, droop, gasp, get, give, lift, raise, scowl, take
prepositions
till, fro (as in to and fro)
conjunction
though
adverbs
aloft, athwart, seemly (so they’re a little old-fashioned)
pronouns
they, their, them
both, same (these can also be used as adjectives)

Some of my favorite factoids about Norse words in English:

OE had a word scyrte (sc in OE is pronounced /sh/) meaning a tunic one wore with a belt
ON had the word skyrta for the same garment.
Both words survived into modern English as shirt (garment above the belt) and skirt (garment below the belt).

The word greyhound does not refer to the dog’s color. The Old Norse word for a female dog was grey. The ON and OE words for “dog” or “hound” were very similar: ON hundr; OE hund. Greyhound, therefore, is literally bitchhound or dogdog.

Some of the Scandinavian words drove out the English ones, such as sky for wolcen and anger for grama (although some writers still use OE ire), but in some cases both the English and Norse words survive as pairs with similar meanings:

no/nay (The “nays” have it.)
whole/hale (He’s feeling hale and hearty.)
rear/raise (We raise pigs, but rear children.)
craft/skill (It takes skill to practice a craft.)
hide/skin (Generally speaking, people have skin; animals have hides.)
sick/ill (In England if you’re sick, someone has to clean it up. Otherwise you’re ill.)

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8 Responses to “They, their, them, eggs and freckles!”

  • Brad K.

    Till is a verb. Till the land.

    Till is a noun. A compartment or drawer in a chest or cabinet.

    Till is a preposition ‘to the time of’. It might be three minutes till twelve. Though I might have used an abbreviation of until, ’til twelve.

  • Maeve

    Brad,
    Thanks for the comment.

    The verb till, meaning “to cultivate the land” is from an Old English word meaning “tend” or “work.”

    The noun till, now meaning a place where cash is kept, may be from an Old French word which found its way into French in a round-about way from Old Norse.

  • Tim Fenelon

    Loved the article paricularly etymology of skirt and discussion of gama, anger and ire. There are many little gems throughout and the writing style is captivating.

    Thought you might like to know the following:

    I got pals of mine to search the site using:
    They, their, them, eggs and freckles!
    And it gave ‘no results’.

    But a search using the same extract without the exclamation mark at the end did reveal the article.

    Regards
    Tim

  • Wedge

    Fascinating, thank you.

    I might suggest that ‘sick’ in common usage no longer refers to vomiting but is a synonym for ‘ill’. You never hear a young person / child say ‘ill’.

  • Sharon Hurley Hall

    Loved this post, Maeve. I have to disagree with Wedge, though. In the UK, people refer to feeling sick when they are nauseous, but ill if it’s a general malaise.

  • Maeve

    Tom,
    Thank you for the kind words.

    You may have guessed that I love to write about words. Words give me the joy that some people get from collecting fossils.

  • Peter

    although some writers still use OE ire

    But ire is from Latin, not OE.

  • Axel

    Window is another borrowed word. It seems it was introduced in the 13th century. Vindöga still has a meaning in swedish today, although the window interpretation represents a feature that is omitted from most modern buildings.

    I really like this site, it looks like an excellent place to browse for linguistics without sifting through dictionary pages.

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