By Anatoly Liberman
The first documented raid of the Vikings goes back to 793. For more than two centuries they were the terror of Europe. A good deal is known about their conquests, ships, and morals. The Old English chronicle and the sermons written at that time are full of heart breaking descriptions of the Norsemen’s cruelties. But the origin of the word Viking has not been explained to everybody’s satisfaction, though some progress has been made in recent years. To us the Vikings are Scandinavian sea robbers who looted the treasures of Europe, conquered great territories, and settled in England and France. It is not for nothing that one of the northern provinces of modern France is called Normandy. And William the Conqueror, the Bastard, defeated the Britons in the battle of Hastings at the head of a Norman army. However, on the continent by 1066 the erstwhile Vikings had become French barons and spoke a dialect of Old French, so that the ethnic “Normans” overpowered medieval Britain twice: as Danes (hence the existence of hundreds of Scandinavian words in Modern English) and as the French (from whom English has countless French words). But the word Viking predates the raids quite considerably. It was common to Old Norse and Old English, and some scholars even suggested that Old English had lent it to Old Norse. If that hypothesis had been substantiated, some modern Scandinavians might have taken umbrage at it. As I mentioned last week, politically-minded people like to lend words but hate borrowing them.
At the end of the 7th century, almost exactly a hundred years before the rapacious Vikings sacked Lindisfarne Abbey, an Old English word that can be modernized as Viking scathe turned up. It meant “piracy.” As Christine Fell explained: “In the seventh century wicing appeared [in Old English prose texts] without national overtones. In the ninth century it could be used of piracy in any context, including the Scandinavian, but in the late tenth century the association with northerners became more pronounced.” In Scandinavia, the name Vikings was given to the brave men who made military expeditions to foreign lands. The points of view of the attackers and the attacked were, not unexpectedly, different.
Taking part in such raids remained an almost indispensable rite of passage for a long time. It was part of growing up, a sign of maturation, a recognized way of showing one’s mettle. One could spend several years in plundering the English, the French, the Germans, or the Slavs, amass great wealth, come home, marry, and become a respectable farmer, a role model to his community and sons. Or the doughty warrior might perish. Then his mother would erect a stone in his memory and have a runic inscription carved stating that so-and-so was a good drengr (“valorous man”) and that he had lost his life abroad. A thousand years later we would read the inscription and meditate on the fortunes of that fellow and on the grief of his parents. Only when military expeditions of the Viking age had lost their importance, did the word Viking deteriorate and come to mean “a figure of fun”; it thus shared some ground with berserkr “berserk.” Yet in the sagas, recorded in the 13th century, berserks are crazy, almost invulnerable bandits, while the Viking past is romanticized. Old men are often described as saying that in their youth they were on “viking” (that is, on expeditions), but now they were decrepit and unfit for such deeds.
The main etymological difficulty is the relation between two Old Norse words: víkingr (masculine) “Viking” and víking (feminine) “Viking expedition” (the accent mark designates the length of the vowel, not stress). They must be connected, but it is not immediately clear which was derived from which. Before going on, I should warn our readers that all the sources in the Internet use outdated material. As noted above, some progress in discovering the origin of the word Viking has been made in recent years. Most publications are in the Scandinavian languages and German, and finding them is not always easy.
These have been the main lines of research. Old Icelandic had the word víc “bay” and a place name Víc. So víkingr can be traced to either of them, with the meaning “people living in a bay area” or “people of Vic.” But not all the Vikings were born in the same place and their main occupation was not haunting bays, fjords, and creeks, as an old but excellent dictionary put it. Besides this, we should keep in mind that a good etymology of Viking has to account for two similar but distinct words rather than one. There was also Old Engl. vic “town,” a borrowing from Latin. The conjecture that this is what the Vikings called their camps (whence the word Viking) strains belief.
The breakthrough came when a tie was established between víking(r) and the Old Scandinavian noun vica “one shift of oarsmen changing places with another at the oars”; this noun is related to the verb vikja “to turn” (those with some knowledge of German will recognize its cognate weichen; it has the same meaning). The famous Viking ships were propelled with oars, and it is credible that the word for “sea voyage, expedition” owes its existence to the idea of an oarsman’s duty, the shift spent at the oars. The line between what we today sometimes euphemistically call “explorers,” armed medieval traders undertaking sea voyages and ready to defend themselves or obtain their booty by force, and sea robbers was blurred, so that the narrowing of meaning in a word like Viking is natural. A víkingr would then be someone on a rowing expedition. The occurrence of nearly the same word in Old Norse and Old English would also find a plausible explanation. It may perhaps be premature to declare the riddle solved, but we seem to be on the right track. In another context the Vikings were called Varangians. From an etymological point of view the two appellations have nothing in common. Incidentally, there is no reason why we spell Viking with a capital letter.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”