They, their, them, eggs and freckles!
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:
birth, booth, egg, fellow, freckle, leg, skin, skirt, window
awkward, flat, ill, loose, low, meek, odd, rotten, sly, tight, weak
call, crawl, die, droop, gasp, get, give, lift, raise, scowl, take
till, fro (as in to and fro)
aloft, athwart, seemly (so they’re a little old-fashioned)
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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