30+ Old Norse Words You Already Know

By Michael - 4 minute read

old-norse-words

Probably you’ve never studied Conversational Viking, let alone claimed to speak it. But the language of the Vikings, Old Norse, has influenced the development of English more than any other language besides French and Latin. The Swedes, Norwegians, Icelanders, and Danes all spoke Old Norse in those days, usually called the “Danish tongue.” In the 11th century, Old Norse was the most widely spoken European language, ranging west with Leif Erickson’s colony of Vinland in modern-day Canada, east with the Viking settlers on the Volga River in modern-day Russia, and south with warriors battling in modern-day Spain, Italy and North Africa.

Four centuries after the Anglo-Saxons began emigrating from northern Europe, Danish Vikings began raiding Britain and had begun settling down by the year 876, plowing the land. The 14 shires dominated by Danish law in northern and eastern England were called the Danelaw. In 1016, King Canute the Great became ruler of all England, even before he became king of his native Denmark. Danish kings ruled England almost until William the Conquerer sailed from Normandy, France and became the first Norman king of England in 1066. When he did, more Norse words entered English. What did William the Conquerer have to do with the Vikings? Because Normandy means “land of the north men,” colonized by people such as William’s ancestor Rollo, whose real name was Hrólfr. See a pattern?

Today Old Norse words are most common in the Yorkshire dialect, but the Danelaw included the East Midlands, York, Essex, Cambridge, Suffolk, Norfolk, Northampton, Huntingdon, Bedford, Hertford, Middlesex and Buckingham.

Old Norse words used in modern English

When it comes to English words for which we are indebted to Old Norse, let’s start with they, their and them. It’s true. If it weren’t for the Vikings, we might still be using the Old English words hîe, heora and him instead. Or maybe not – when him and them mean the same thing in a language, you know it’s time for a change.

In fact, English received many really, really common words from Old Norse, such as give, take, get, and both. And sale, cake, egg, husband, fellow, sister, root, rag, loose, raise, rugged, odd, plough, freckle, call, flat, hale, ugly, and lake.

Another Old English word that was quickly replaced was the very short word æ, which meant law. Today we use a longer and less ambiguously-spelled Old Norse word: law.

Many English words that begin with sk or sc came from Old Norse, such as skin, sky, score, scant, scrub, scathe, and skill.

Old Norse words that feature two-letter blends and a high consonant-to-vowel ratio just sound Viking to me, especially if you pronounce both letters as the Vikings originally did: knife, snare, snub, wrong, bread, dwell, bask, dream, steak, stammer, and especially thwart.

Old Norse words that meant something slightly different

English word, with original Old Norse meaning

anger – trouble, affliction, which can make a person angry
bait – snack, food eaten at work. Now means food used to catch fish, wild animals, and susceptible people.
bask – similar to the Old Norse word meaning “to bathe”
berserk – either from bear-shirt (frenzied warriors wearing a bearskin shirt) or bare-shirt (frenzied warriors wearing no shirt)
blunder – to shut one’s eyes; to stumble about blindly
bulk – partition; cargo, as in the nautical term bulkhead
crawl – to claw. Crawling up a steep slope may require clawing.
dirt – excrement. Appropriately so.
gang – any group of men, as in modern Danish, not necessarily dangerous
gawk – to heed, as in paying too much attention
gift – dowry, a kind of wedding gift. In modern Danish, gift means wedding.
haggle – to chop. It amuses me to imagine how this word came to mean vigorous bargaining.
hap, happy – chance, good luck, fate. Apparently the Vikings didn’t believe that “happiness is a choice.”
lake – to play, which is what many people do at a lake. A famous Danish toy manufacturer is called Lego.
litmus – from the Old Norse words litr (dye) and mosi (moss), used as a chemical test for acidity and alkalinity.
muck – cow dung. An English dairy farmer may say he needs to muck out, or clean, his barn.
muggy – drizzle, mist. Today it means severely humid.
rive – to scratch, plow, tear. A poet might write about his heart being riven in two.
scathe – to hurt, injure. Only the opposite word, unscathed, is common. Gang members never say, “You come near me, I’m gonna scathe you.”
seem – to conform. Think about that for a while.
skill – distinction. If you are skilled, you might earn distinction.
sleuth – trail. The sleuth is always on the trail for clues.
snub – to curse. When you’re snubbed or ignored, you might feel cursed.
sprint – to jump up, one of the keys to winning in a sprint.
stain – to paint. Not the same thing at your paint store.
stammer – to hinder; to dam up, as in a flow of words
steak – to fry. Could the Vikings have introduced chicken fried steak to the American South? No.
thrift – prosperity. If you have thrift, perhaps prosperity will follow.
thwart – across, which has kept a similar meaning for sailors
window – “wind-eye” or in Old Norse, vindauga. A treasure of a word.

Old English words that meant something different before the Vikings

bread – In Old English, bread meant “bit, piece, morsel” but in Old Norse, bread meant… “bread.” We get our word loaf from the Old English word for bread which it replaced.
die – Before the Vikings, die meant “starve”
dream – Before the Vikings, dream meant “joy, mirth, noisy merriment,” even “music.”
dwell – Before the Vikings, dwell meant both “go astray” and “tarry.” I’m still trying to figure that one out.

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7 Responses to “30+ Old Norse Words You Already Know”

  • Caitlin

    Go astray > tarry > loiter > dwell?

    Great article.

  • Michael W. Perry

    Those who’d like to better understand how various words came into our language might want to subscribe to the marvelous History of English Podcast. Just be warned, it is now on its 113th episode, so you will have a lot of catching up to do.

  • Mac wheeler

    enjoyed

  • Dale A. Wood

    Quoting: “But the language of the Vikings, Old Norse, has influenced the development of English more than any other language besides French and Latin.”
    By far, the Number One influence on the development of English has been Anglo-Saxon ! That is where the deepest roots plunge.
    In contrast, the influence of Celtic has been negligible.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Speaking of the foods made from grain, in modern German the word “Brot” has a dual meaning. It means both “bread” and “loaf”, and the difference between the two is figured from the context. We have some words like this in English, too.

  • D.A.W.

    Quoting: “muck – cow dung. An English dairy farmer may say he needs to muck out, or clean out, his barn.”
    In North American English, something that is all too common is a person who mucks around in politics!

  • D.A.W.

    The languages of the Danes, the Saxons (of the lowlands of Germany) and the Frisians must have overlapped by a good deal. Our words for close relatives are clearly Anglo-Saxon:
    Schwester, Bruder, Mutter, Vater, Tante, Onkel, Tochter, Sohn, Kusine, are what they are in modern German.
    Furthermore: Grossmutter, Grossvater, Grosstante, Grossonkel, too, because “gross” means “great”, “grand”, and “tall/big”, all depending on the context.
    Grossbrittanien is easy.

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