17 English Words That Navigated Their Way Directly From Old Norse

Do words like fjord, reindeer, and icicle make you think of ice-bound, snowy places? It might be because they are all related to Old Norse.

Old Norse is the term given to describe the ancient language of Scandinavia—and the parent to the modern-day languages of Danish, Faroese, Icelandic, Norwegian, and Swedish. (All of these tongues are Germanic languages, so they are closely related to English itself.)

The Old Norse language was transmitted throughout Europe and the British Isles by Northern Germanic viking invaders and via trade and exploration in early European history. Over time, Old Norse loanwords became incorporated into Old English, and some remain in the modern English we use today.

Each year on October 8, the US commemorates the landing of Norse navigator Leif Erikson in North America around 1000 CE with Leif Erikson Day.

But once you see this list of words we borrowed from Old Norse, we think you’ll agree that many essential everyday terms we use in English ultimately come from Old Norse—and that’s something we can acknowledge every day.

So, about those fjords

fjord

A fjord is “a long, narrow arm of the sea bordered by steep cliffs.” In Scandinavia, it literally refers to “a bay.” Fjord ultimately comes from the Old North firth-, meaning “fjord.” Because Scandinavia is known for its fjords, it makes sense it would give English its name for this geographic feature.

berserk

The word berserk means “violently or destructively frenzied.” The notion of someone going berserk comes from Scandinavian legends, where a berserker was an ancient Norse warrior who fought with frenzied rage in battle.

The word berserk comes from the Old Norse berserkr said to come from the Old Norse for “bear shirt.” According to some interpretations, the term “bear shirt” is a reference to the animal pelts these Norse warriors would wear into battle.

 

You might associate berserk with acting “crazy,” but there are better alternatives to using that term.

saga

Another term closely associated with Norse mythology that we have adopted into English is saga, which originally meant “a medieval Norse prose narrative of achievements and events in the history of a personage, family, etc.” Today, saga is used more generally to refer to “any very long story with dramatic events or parts.”

Saga comes from the Old Norse saga, meaning “story, narrative, or history.”

walleyed

There are also some evocative adjectives that come from Old Norse. One such word is walleyed, meaning “having eyes in which there is an abnormal amount of the white showing.” This term is often applied to fish, particularly the walleye. Walleyed comes from the Old Norse word vagleygr. Although it’s not entirely clear what vagl- meant, it’s possible that it’s related to the Icelandic vagl, meaning “film.”

ugly

Another example of an adjective that comes from Old Norse is ugly. This word comes from the Old Norse uggligr, meaning “fearful” or “dreadful.” In other words, something that is ugly inspires fear.

 

Fear can take shape as horror or terror. Do you know the difference?

ransack

As we noted in the introduction, part of the reason Old Norse spread was through viking invasions. Appropriately enough, then, the English word ransack ultimately comes from Old Norse. Ransack means “to search thoroughly or vigorously through” or “to pillage.”

Ransack comes from the Old Norse rannsaka meaning “to search, examine (for evidence of a crime.” The first part of the word rann- means “house” and saka means “search.”

ski 

The Nordic countries are known for being snowbound, so it is perhaps of little surprise that the word ski comes from Old Norse. Ski comes from the Old Norse skīth, meaning “snow-shoe” or “plank of wood.” It’s related to the German Scheit, meaning “thin board.”

die

The word die, as in “to cease to live,” is from the Old Norse deyja, meaning “die.” Yes, Old Norse is a part of the very life—and death, apparently—of English.

bag

A classic everyday word that comes from Old Norse is bag, in the sense of “pouch.” Bag comes from Old Norse baggi, meaning “pack, bundle, bag.”

irk

Work can certainly be irksome, meaning “annoying; irritating; tiresome.” This is why it may not surprise you that irk, as in “to irritate,” comes from the Old Norse yrkja, meaning “to work.” This word’s meaning changed slightly when it was adopted into Middle English, becoming irken meaning “to grow tired, tire.”

freckle

Someone with freckles is a bit speckled, which helps explain the somewhat muddled origin of the word. Freckle comes from a combination of the word frecken, from the Old Norse frekna meaning “speckle” and the late Middle English speckle.

 

How does one end up with freckles though? Might help to break down some scientific talk with this look at homozygous vs. heterozygous.

gift

Gift-giving was and is a big part of Nordic culture. The word gift itself comes from the Old Norse gift or gipt. The word gift originally was most closely associated with a dowry, or a payment for a wife. The plural form in Old Norse, giptar, meant “wedding.”

take

The verb take ultimately comes from Old Norse taka, meaning “to take, grab, grasp.” This Old Norse word was adopted into Middle English as taken, ultimately edging out the Old English verb for take, niman. The English verb nim did hold on for a little while as a slang term meaning “to steal” into the 1600s.

sky

The origin of sky is literally cloudy. That’s because sky comes from Old Norse skȳ, meaning “cloud.” (And the word cloud originally meant “rock” in English.)

 

Thank the skies—and Norse mythology—for Friday! Learn the origins of Friday’s name and why it’s fraught with mythological debate.

they

This one may surprise you: pronouns are a core and enduring part of any language, but even they are susceptible to change!

The third-person pronoun they ultimately comes from Old Norse their (“they”). As in the case with take, the word of Old Norse origin ultimately edged out the Old English form of they, hī(e), in common usage.

egg

Similarly, the word egg was adopted into English from Old Norse egg. Previously, the word for egg in English was ey or ǣg.

window

It may surprise you that the word window comes from Old Norse. It comes from the Old Norse vindauga, literally meaning “wind-eye.” Native Old English words had similar literal meanings to the Old Norse word that replaced them: ēagduru (“eye-door”) and ēagthyrel (“eye-hole”).

If you’re interested in reviewing all of the words in English that come from Old Norse, you can check out our word list here. To test your Nordic knowledge, try your hand at our quiz here.