What’s in a name?

Photo: Wikimedia Commons. United States postage stamp honoring the eleventh century Norse explorer Leif Eriksen. The 6-cent stamp was issued on Oct. 9, 1968.

Leif, Leiv, Leifur – Rolf Kristian Stang takes a look at the controversy surrounding the famous explorer’s name

Rolf Kristian Stang

New York City, N.Y.

Origins of words are important, as well as consistency in using them. How they are spelled should be taken seriously; the manner of spelling is a source indicator. The name of Leif Eriksson regularly gets spelled irregularly! He’s Leifur Eiríksson in modern Icelandic, with Leif or Leiv alternating as first name, though pronounced the same— the ‘ur’ simply denoting gender, just as in Spanish Robert gets spelled Roberto.

What we need to talk about is how his last name gets spelled: Eriksson, Erikson, Ericksson, Erickson, Ericsson, Ericson, Erichsson, or Erichson? The latter six, using Latin “c” are the most removed from the Norse and the least authentic. Also, the very last two with “ch,” specifically, are German! Remember, Leif was born an Icelander and his father, the exiled Erik the Red, was Norwegian. For the sake of Leif’s deserved claim-to-fame things should settle down to a logical, universal single spelling, so that the world at large may always know who we are talking about.

During the past few hundred years, the Latinized form of the name, i.e. using “c,” instead of “k,” has crept in. In the Nordic countries, it’s used predominantly in Sweden, I believe, but this spelling has spread to the English-speaking world.

There are two other affectations of note from this period worth mentioning: “ch” instead of “k” and also the frequently seen Latin surname-ending: “ius.” Where does this impulse to change come from? Is it that the “c,” “ch” or the “ius” makes a name look classier? Perhaps. Throughout North Europe, “ius” has been adapted as an ending for family names. The Swedish-speaking Finnish clan, Sibbe, for example, altered its name in this way and later gave us a musical genius, so we all know it in its Latinized form, Sibelius.

Well. With Leif Eriksson, now, we’re not talking about some brain-bustingly difficult name to spell or one that is tongue-twistingly challenging to pronounce. Remember, the name comes down from the Old Norse! Further, not withstanding our language’s countless borrowings and influences, English is not a Romance language, it is essentially Anglo-Saxon with much that is Norse in its base structure and vocabulary (which still eludes many). The letter “k” is very much a part of it. So, with Eriksson in English, let’s stick to using the “k.” (If one of the versions spelled with “c” happens to be your family’s name, that’s another thing entirely. Your name is your name.)

With regard to the famous Millennium voyager, we should also use two “s”-es. The first of the two reflects the possessive (Leif being Erik’s son). This shows how names at that time were arrived at. Because that’s an enlightening thing that comes in the spelling, there’s clear logic in using it.

Here’s a few contrasting hypothetical examples coming from the other direction. Just imagine us trying to get used to people around the world using Linkoln, Kleveland, MkKinley, Koolidge, Karter, Klinton or Cennedy, instead of how we know them!

Sad to say, with Leif’s name, this spelling-variables thing goes on and on. For instance, there must have been no Icelander or Norwegian with whom to consult when the U.S. Congress in 2000 officially spelled it Ericson(!), when, notably, it wished to acknowledge officially Leif’s landing on the North American continent 1,000 years before, during the Viking Age… and some 500 years before Columbus.

Have you ever thought of this scenario? No one trying to improve the spelling has as yet substituted Latin “ph” for “f” in his first name! Leiph would sound okay, but really looks strange, doesn’t it? To go even further… how does this look to you: Leiph Ericsonius? Pretty far off base, right? Yet, for some, I guess, it’s all the same.

Leif Eriksson, Viking-Age Voyager

A song by Rolf Kristian Stang

Sung to the tune of “Tramp, tramp, tramp the boys are marching”

Let’s not bog down overzealous,

when it comes to Leif’s good name,

but this name with twenty versions

floating ‘round is just insane.

Leif, to all, is clear and simple;

problems come with his last name:

Latin “c” is not the answer;

how’d this happen? It’s a shame!

Common sense must be a good guide

as we seek to spread his fame,

Eriksson’s a happy answer

and it looks a Nordic name!

Only when the proud Italians

spell Kolumbus with a “k,”

then, by Kristoffer (!), I’ll cave in…

Say you still “It’s all the same!”?

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 5, 2012 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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