Updated 19 Mar 2000
Font colour key:
dark blue = non-Scandinavian Germanic word; dark red = loanword into English; green = Old Germanic dialect; purple = Modern Scandinavian word.
Abbreviations: ODanish = Old Danish; OE = Old English; ON = Old Norse; OSwedish = Old Swedish.
This small article aims to present and give the etymologies of the chief loans into early modern and modern English from the Scandinavian languages. The many Nordic loans into Old and Middle English have been treated in a separate article.
The primary sources discussing these loans have been the brief discussions appearing in Serjeantson, Speake and Kisbye (see booklist below) and the proposed loans have been checked in etymological dictionaries. Most important and reliable of these have been Barnhart and Hoad, while Skeat has only been consulted as a last resort. Some of the derivations given by Barnhart from Scandinavian words which are rare, curious or dialectal do not appear in the standard dictionaries for those languages, but they are included due to the absence of other information.
As might be expected, many of the loans from the Scandinavian languages in the modern period are terms relating to more or less specifically Scandinavian objects, concepts or creatures, for which English had no appropriate term. As will be seen, a number of these (RUNE, KRAKEN, SKALD, BESERK, SAGA, TROLL, JOTUN, RAGNARÖK) were borrowed during the period in which knowledge of Old Norse literature (and later Norwegian folk tales) was first being acquired in England and for which our language was lacking equivalent terms. These loans therefore stem mainly from ON or from direct ON descendants in early modern Icelandic. Loans for more or less peculiarly Nordic phenomena are, for example, AUK, LOON, RUNE (our native Anglo-Saxon equivalent had long since died in English), KRAKEN, SKALD, BESERK, GEYSER, SAGA, STORTHING, TROLL, SMØRREBRØD, SMORGASBORD.
Others relate to creatures, geographical features and weather patterns which are characteristic of Scandinavian or other northern climes and for which (in some cases), English had the option of, but not necessarily the need, to borrow, e.g. VOE, JOKUL, FLOE, MAELSTROM, SKERRY, WALRUS, NARWHAL, SQUALL (violent gust of wind), ICEBERG, ICEBLINK, SKUA, FJELD, PIPKRAKE, TJÆLE.
Still others pertain to activities or professions in which Scandinavians traditonally excel or are renowned for, e.g. YAW, SKOAL, SKI, SLALOM, KLISTER, SKI-JORING. The marine animals mentioned in the previous paragraph can also be considered as being relevant here, owing to the Scandinavians’ mastery of sailing, shipping and fishing and their extensive knowledge of the sea.
What remains is a number of apparently random loans which seem to have little common thematic ground. They do, however, to some extent reflect Scandinavian (especially Swedish) advances in technology and democracy, as well as a robost common cultural heritage and a distinctive cuisine, e.g. ANGSTROM, MOPED, OMBUDSMAN, PALSTAVE, TRAP, TUNGSTEN, HALLING, GJETOST, GRAVADLAX, LANGELEIK, ROSEMALING, SPRINGAR, POLSKA, GLÖGG, RYA.
1: Scandinavian (source language undetermined)
BATTEN (1500s) "feed abundantly, grow fat, thrive" from a Scandinavian source, cf. Norwegian batne "improve, grow better", ON batna "improve, thrive"; ROWAN (1500s) the mountain ash, from a Scandinavian source, cf. Norwegian raun, rogn, Swedish rönn, ON reynir "rowan tree"; RUG (1551) originally "coarse fabric", cf. Norwegian dialect rugga "coarse covering", Swedish rugg "coarse hair", rugge "tuft" and ON rögg "shaggy tuft"; modern meaning from 1591 (Barnhart); SCRAG (1542) "skinny person or animal", cf. Swedish skragge, Norwegian skrakl "tall thin person", Icelandic skröggur "old man"; SCRUB (1545) "rub hard" perhaps from a Scandinavian source, cf. Danish and Norwegian skrubbe but Middle Dutch or Middle Low German may be the origin; SCUD (1532) "run or move swiftly" from a Scandinavian source, cf. Norwegian skudda "thrust", Swedish skudda "shake", ON skjóta "push, shove"; SCUFFLE (1579) is probably the frequentive form of scuff, cf. Swedish skuffa "push, shove", ON skúfa "push aside"; SIMPER (1563) probably a loan from Scandinavian, cf. Norwegian semper "fine, smart", Danish dialectal semper "affected, coy" (Barnhart) but an alternative derivation is from 1500s Dutch semper "affected"; SKIT (Freeborn claims 1572; others give 1700s) "a brief satirical theatrical sketch" probably from a Scandinavian source; related to SKITTER below and therefore to Icelandic skjóta "shoot"; SNAG (1577-87) "stump of a tree", with the meaning "projection" in 1586, from a Scandinavian source, cf. Norwegian dialectal snag "stump, spike"; SNUG (1595) from a Scandinavian source, cf. Swedish snygg "neat, trim", ON snøggr "short haired"; WAD (1540) probably a shortened form of 1392 wadmal "soft padding material" from ON vaðmál "measure of cloth"; YAW (1546) probably from a Scandinavian source, cf. ON jaga, Norwegian jage "hunt, drive, fly".
LOON a guillemot (1634) from a Scandinavian source, cf. Norwegian lom, ON lómr "loon"; NUDGE (1675) from a Scandinavian source, cf. Norwegian nugge, nyggje "nudge, shove", Icelandic nugga "rub"; OAF (1638 with this spelling) from a Scandinavian source, cf. ON álfr "elf, fairy"; RUNE (1685; runic is recorded from 1662) the word was introduced from Danish rune or Icelandic rún deriving from ON rún "secret or magical lore; magical symbol; written character, rune" (native OE rûn did not survive the Middle English period); SKERRY (1600s; mainly Scots) "small rocky island, reef", from a Scandinavian source, cf. Norwegian skjær, skjer, ON sker "skerry"; SKEWER (1679; earlier 1411: skuer) probably from a Scandinavian source, cf. ON skífa "cut, slice", Swedish skiva "slice"; SKITTLES (1634) a plural form of a Scandinavian loan, cf. Norwegian and Swedish skyttel "shuttle"; SMUT (with the meaning of the modern noun, 1698) perhaps a Scandinavian source, cf. Swedish smuts, Danish smuds "dirt, mud, filth"; SQUALL "cry loudly" (c.1631) from a Scandinavian source, cf. ON skvala "shout, bawl"; VOE (1600s) "small bay or narrow creek" ultimately ON vágr "creek, bay"; KEG (1632), a variant of earlier kag (1452) from a Scandinavian source, cf. ON kaggi "keg, cask", Swedish kagge "keg, cask", Norwegian kagg "keg, barrel".
COSY (1700s) origin uncertain but probably from a Scandinavian source, cf. Norwegian koselig "comfortable"; JOKUL (1700s) probably from a Scandinavian source, cf. Norwegian jøkel, jøkul "glacier", ON jökull "ice, glacier"; KRAKEN (1700s) a giant mythical sea-monster thought to live off the Norwegian coast, from a Scandinavian source, probably Norwegian kraken; MUGGY (1731) probably derived from ME muggen (1390) "drizzle" from a Scandinavian source, cf. Norwegian Nynorsk mugg "drizzle", ON mugga "drizzle, mist"; SQUALL (1719) "violent gust of wind", from a Scandinavian source, cf. Norwegian skval "rippling, splashing sound", Swedish skvala "gush, pour forth"; MAELSTROM first recorded as the proper name (1701) of a whirlpool off the Lototen Islands, with the generalised meaning of a large and violent whirlpool becoming current about 1841, from Danish Malstrøm, originally from Dutch maelstrom (now maalstroom).
AQUAVIT (1870-99) an alcoholic spirit distilled from potatoes, from mainland akvavit "water of life", a Scandinavianisation of a Latin expression; BESERK (1851; earlier 1822 berserker) erroneously adapted into English from Scandinavian, cf. ON beserkr "bear sark"; FLOE (1817) probably from Norwegian Nynorsk flo "layer, stratum", from ON fló "layer"; NAG (vb.) (1825) probably from a Scandinavian source, cf. ON gnadda "mumur, grumble", nagga "complain", Norwegian nage "gnaw, rankle"; SKITTER (1845) from earlier 1721 skite "dart, run about", from a Scandinavian source, cf. Icelandic skjóta "shoot"; VOLE (1805; earlier vole-mouse) from a Scandinavian source, cf. Norwegian voll < *vollmus "field mouse" - the source of the English word presumably originally compounds either Norwegian voll "grassy field, meadow" or Icelandic völlur "plain, field", both from ON völlr "plain".
2. Old Norse
JOTUN (1830-69) a member of the race of giants from Old Scandinavian mythology, as preserved in Old Icelandic poetry and sagas - loaned from ON jötunn "giant" (cf. Norwegian Bokmål jotun, jutul, Nynorsk jøtul "giant" and cognate OE eoten "giant"); RAGNARÖK, RAGNAROK (1870-99) the defeat of the gods and men at the final battle by the forces of evil, as described in Old Scandinavian mythology and there mainly in the Old Icelandic poem Völuspá, from ON ragnarök, later ragnarøkkr (perhaps via modern Icelandic ragnarök) from ON ragna "of the gods" + rök "doom, fate" or røkkr "twilight" (cf. German Götterdämmerung, Swedish gudaskymning "twilight of the gods"); SAGA (1709: an Old Norse prose narrative from Iceland or Norway, 1830-69: a narrative regarded as having the traditional qualities of these; a story of heroic exploit) from ON saga "something said, tale, story", loaned during the time the ON sagas were becoming known in England (but perhaps the identical word in modern Icelandic, saga, is the source of the English loan); SKALD, SCALD (1763) an itinerant or court oral poet, a bard, especially in ancient Scandinavia, loaned from ON skáld, perhaps mediated via modern Icelandic skáld (cf. Norwegian skald, Danish skjald).
EIDER (1743) via German Eider or Dutch eider from Icelandic æðar(fugl) "eider-fowl", genitive of ON æðr; GEYSER (1780) originally the proper name of a geyser in Haukadal, Árnessýsla, derived from Icelandic geysa "gush forth" < ON geysa "gush"; SANDUR (1870-99) a broad, flat or gently sloping plain of glacial outwash, from Icelandic sandur "sand, sandy ground, sea-shore".
SKUA (1678) apparently a naturalistion of Faroese skúgvur, cognate with ON skúfr "seagull".
AUK (1674) a short-winged, heavy-bodied Atlantic seabird, from Norwegian alke, cf. Icelandic álka "auk"; FIORD, FJORD (1674) from Norwegian fiord, fjord, descended from ON fjörðr "firth, inlet"; FJELD (1830-69) a high barren rocky plateau, especially in Scandinavia, from Dano-Norwegian fjeld "mountain" descended from ON fjall "mountain, fell"; GJETOST (1900-29) a cheese made from goat’s milk, from Norwegian Riksmål gjetost (gjet "goat" + ost "cheese"); HALLING (1830-69) a Norwegian country dance in duple rhythm (from Hallingdal, a valley in southern Norway); KLISTER (1930-69) a wax applied before a ski-run to aid the glide of the skiis on the snow, from Norwegian klister soft ski-wax (literally "paste"); KRILL (1907) a luminous shrimp, from Norwegian krill (perhaps related to Icelandic kríli "little thing"); LANGELEIK (1900-29) an early Norwegian stringed instrument resembling the zither, from Norwegian langeleik (lang "long" + leik "play"); LEMMING (1713) from Norwegian lemen, descended from ON læmingi, læmingr "lemming"; NARWHAL (1658 Narh whale, 1747 Narwhale) probably from Norwegian narhval (or perhaps Danish narhval or Swedish narval), derived from Icelandic náhvalur, ON náhvalr "corpse-whale" (from its whitish colour); RORQUAL (1827) a whale of the finback family, via French from Norwegian røyrkval, cf. ON reyðarhvalr "rorqual" (literally "red-whale"); ROSEMALING (1930-69) the art of painting wooden objects with flower motifs, from Norwegian rosemaling "rose-painting" (rose "rose" + maling "painting"); SKI (1755) Norwegian ski, from ON skíð "snowshoe, stick of wood"; SKI-JORING (1900-29) a winter sport in which the skiier is towed by a horse or vehicle, from Norwegian skikjøring (literally "ski-driving"); SLALOM (1921) from Norwegian slalåm a skiing race, literally "sloping track" (Nynorsk sla "sloping" + låm "track" (made by skiis)); SPRINGAR (1930-69) a piece of music for a Norwegian country dance in 3/4 time, from Norwegian springar < verb springe "bound, jump, leap"; STORTHING, STORTING (1834) the legislative assembly of Norway, from Norwegian storting (stor "large" + ting "assembly"), ultimately from ON stórr + þing ("great assembly"); TROLL (1616) probably from Norwegian troll "troll, monster, goblin" (cf. Swedish troll, Danish trold) ultimately from ON troll "giant, demon".
ANGST (1859, but not in popular use until c.1956) "fear, anxiety" from Danish angst, earlier angest "fear, anxiety, dread", a loan from Middle Low German [German Angst, however, may be the source of the English word]; BAT (mammal) (1575) is a replacement for earlier ME bakke, both being loans from Scandinavian, probably Danish from ODanish bakkæ or perhaps OSwedish backa "bat"; ICEBERG (1774) from Danish isbjerg [or from Dutch ijsberg]; ICEBLINK "the gleam from distant ice structures" from Danish isblink (is "ice"+ blink "gleam, flash"); LANDNAM (1930-69) the clearance of woodland for agricultural purposes or evidence of this act, from Danish landnåm "taking or occupation of land" (apparently based on ON landnám or Icelandic landnám "the taking of land" (usually in reference to the settlement of Iceland) from land "land" + nám "taking, occupation" (< ON nema "take, take possession of"; cf. German nehmen)); LANDRACE (1930-69) a breed of large white pig originally bred in Denmark, from Danish landrace (land "national-" + race "breed"); MOR (1930-69) a layer of acidic humus formed in cool moist conditions where decompostion is slow (such as in coniferous forests), from Danish mor "humus"; PALSTAVE, PALSTAFF (1851; archeological usage) a kind of celt (usually bronze) fitting into a split wooden handle instead of a socket, from Danish pålstav, apparently a Danish loan and adaption of ON pál-stafr, a kind of heavy missle (from páll "spade, hoe" + stafr "staff"); SKOAL (c.1600, Scots only) "cheers!" from early modern Danish skaal (now skål, literally "bowl") "toast" - probably from King James' visit to Denmark in 1589; SMØRREBRØD (1900-29) from Danish smørrebrød, literally "bread and butter" an open sandwich, hors d'oeuvres served on slices of bread.
ANGSTROM (1951, altered from earlier 1906: Ängström) from Swedish ångström, a unit of measurement named after the Swedish physicist A.J. Ängström; DESMAN (1700s) a mole-like amphibious mammal, from Swedish desman-råtta literally "musk-rat"; FARTLEK (1930-69) "interval training": a method of training used by middle and long distance runners alternating fast and slow work in cross-country runs, from Swedish fartlek (fart "speed" + lek "play"); GAUNTLET (1646 in the form gantlope) punishment of running between two rows of armed men ("running the gauntlet") from Swedish gatlopp (gata "track" + lopp "course") probably imported by English troops fighting in the Thirty Years War, later confused with gauntlet from another source; GLÖGG, GLUGG (1900-29) a spiced Scandinavian winter alcoholic drink, from Swedish glögg (cf. Norwegian gløgg); GRAVADLAX, GRAVLAX/GRAVLAKS (1930-69) raw salmon cured with salt and herbs, from Swedish gravadlax, gravlax raw spiced salmon (grav "grave, trench" + lax "salmon"; the spicing process was originally undertaken in a trench in the ground); MOPED (1956) from Swedish moped formed from mo(tor) + ped(al); OMBUDSMAN (1959) from Swedish ombudsman "commissioner" (cf. ON umboðsmaðr "commissionary, steward"); PIPKRAKE (1930-69) an ice-needle, needle ice, from Swedish pipkrake (pip "pipe" + (dialectal) krake "frozen ground"); POLSKA (1870-99) a processional Scandinavian folk-dance of Polish origin, usually in 3/4 time, from Swedish polsk "Polish"; RUTABAGA (1799) the Swedish turnip, from dialectal Swedish rotabagge (rota "root + bagge "bag"); RYA (1930-69) a Scandinavian variety of knotted pile rug, from Swedish rya "long-pile rug" (originally rya rug); SMORGASBORD (1893) from Swedish smörgåsbord, a cold buffet consisting of various hors d'oeuvres (literally smörgås "bread and butter" + bord "table"); TJÆLE, TÆLE (1900-29) a frozen surface at the base of the active layer in a periglacial environment, from Swedish tjäle "ice in frozen ground, ground frost"; TRAP (1700s) a fine grained igneous rock, from Swedish trappa "stair"; TUNGSTEN (1770) from Swedish tungsten "heavy stone" (tung "heavy" + sten "stone"); VARVE (1900-29) a band of sediment deposited in glacial lakes, consisting of a light layer and a dark layer deposited at different seasons, from Swedish varv "layer; turn"; WALRUS (1655) [via Dutch walrus, walros "whale-horse"] probably from Swedish, valross cf. ON rosmhvalr, hrosshvalr "walrus" (literally "horse-whale").
Barnhart, Robert, K.: Chambers Dictionary of English Etymology, Chambers Harrap Publishers, Edinburgh, 1999;
Collins English Dictionary (Millennium Edition), HarperCollins Publishers, Glasgow, 1998;
Freeborn, Dennis: From Old English to Standard English, 2nd revised and enlarged edition. London: Macmillan Press Ltd., 1998;
Haugen, Einar: Norsk-engelsk Ordbok, Oslo: Universitetsforlaget, 1993;
Heggstad, Leiv, Hødnebø, Finn & Simensen, Erik: Norrøn Ordbok, Det Norske Samlaget, Oslo, 1997;
Hoad, T.F. (ed.): The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996;
Kisbye, T.: Vikingerne i England: sproglige spor, København: Akademisk Forlag, 1988.
Nielsen, Niels Åge: Dansk Etymologisk Ordbog, København: Gyldendal, 1989;
Norsteds stora svensk-engelska ordbok, Norstedts Förlag AB, Stockholm, 1993;
Serjeantson, M.S. A History of Foreign Words in English, London, 1935. (Ch.4, "The Scandinavian Element");
Skeat, Walter W.: The Concise Dictionary of English Etymology, Wordsworth Reference, Herts., 1993;
Speake, J. (ed.): The Oxford Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998;
Vinterberg, H. & Bodelsen, C.A.: Dansk-engelsk ordbog, (Gyldendals store røde ordbøger), Gyldendals, København, 1990;
Zoëga, Geir T.: A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic, London: Oxford University Press, 1961.
© Edward Smith 2011