Etymology #2: The Influence of Norse Mythology on English

By | March 3, 2023
The Viking legacy lives on: A modern-day Norse boat sails on, reminding us of the lasting influence of Viking culture on the English language and beyond
The Viking legacy lives on: A modern-day Norse boat sails on, reminding us of the lasting influence of Viking culture on the English language and beyond. Image: Barnabas Davoti

The English language has a long and varied history, with roots in many different cultures and languages. One of the most fascinating influences on the English language is Norse mythology. From the Viking invasions of England in the 9th century to the popularity of Norse mythology in modern culture, the impact of these myths on English vocabulary is undeniable.

One of the most obvious examples of Norse mythology’s influence on English is the names of the days of the week. In the modern English language, we use the names Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. However, these names were not always used. In fact, before the Norse invasions of England, the days of the week were named after Roman gods. For example, Tuesday was named after the Roman god of war, Mars, and Wednesday was named after the Roman god of commerce, Mercury.

After the Norse invasions of England, many of the old names were replaced with names from Norse mythology. For example, Wednesday was renamed after the Norse god Odin (known as Woden in Old English), who was the god of wisdom and knowledge. Similarly, Thursday was named after the Norse god Thor, who was the god of thunder and lightning.

But the influence of Norse mythology on English vocabulary goes beyond the days of the week. Many other English words have their roots in Norse mythology. For example, the word “berserk” comes from the Norse word “berserkr,” which referred to a warrior who fought with wild, uncontrolled rage. It likely means “bear-shirt” and is referring to the apparel of a person that is made from the skin of a bear. .

Another interesting example is the word “ragnarok,” which refers to the end of the world in Norse mythology. This word has found its way into modern English and is often used to refer to a catastrophic event or a complete collapse.

Many other words and phrases in common use today originate from Old Norse. For example, words like “sky,” “law,” and “window” all have their roots in Old Norse. The word “husband” comes from the Old Norse word “húsbóndi,” which was a compound of “hús” meaning “house” and “bóndi” meaning “occupier” or “dweller.” In Old Norse, the word referred to a man who was the head of a household, responsible for managing the land and property. The term “husband” was later borrowed into English during the Middle Ages when Norse invaders and settlers arrived in England. The Old English equivalent of “husband” was “wer” or “were” which also meant “man” or “male human being.” But as the Norse language and culture became more influential in England, “husband” gradually replaced “wer” as the word for a married man. Over time, the meaning of “husband” evolved to refer specifically to a man who was married, and responsible for providing for and supporting his family. The modern usage of “husband” as a term for a married man has been in use since the 14th century. “were” lives on today as a part of the word “werewolf”, where we can see another connection to mythology.

Norse mythology has had a significant impact on English popular culture. The tales of Norse gods and heroes have inspired countless works of literature, film, and television. One of the most prominent examples is J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which draws heavily on Norse mythology and language. In fact, Tolkien was a professor of Old English and an expert for Norse at the University of Oxford and used his extensive knowledge of these subjects to create the richly detailed world of Middle-earth.

Other examples of Norse mythology in popular culture include the Marvel Comics universe, which features characters such as Thor and Loki, and the popular video game series “God of War,” which takes place in a world inspired by Norse mythology. The Viking era has also been a popular subject for historical fiction, with novels such as Bernard Cornwell’s “The Last Kingdom” and the television series “Vikings” capturing the imaginations of audiences worldwide. The NFL team Minnesota Vikings also refers to this theme.

The impact of Old Norse on English vocabulary is a testament to the enduring power of these myths. Even though the Vikings and their mythology are long gone, their influence lives on in the words we use every day. So the next time you use the word “Wednesday” remember that you are tapping into a rich cultural heritage that stretches back over a thousand years.

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