Norwegian words in English: Berserk
M. Michael Brady
The word berserk in English comes from the Old Norse word berserker, meaning “fierce warrior.”
Berserker appeared first in writing in Haraldskvæði, a late 9th century Norwegian poem in honor of King Harald Hårfagre (“Harald Fair Hair”). Sir Walter Scott (1771-1832) first used it in English in The Pirate, a historical novel published in 1822.
The setting of The Pirate is at the southern tip of the Island of Shetland, part of the subarctic archipelago northeast of mainland Britain. The island had been colonized by Vikings in the 8th and 9th Centuries and annexed by King Harald Hårfagre in 875. It had been Christianized in 997 and made part of the bishopric administered by the Cathedral at Nidaros, now Trondheim in mid-Norway.
Novelist Scott was a meticulous researcher, thoroughly familiar with Shetland, which he had visited in 1814. Understandably, many words in the dialect of Shetland were of Norwegian origin. So in using berserker in The Pirate, Scott inserted an explanation that “The berserkers were so called from fighting without armor.”
The cause of the legendary fighting fury of the berserkers is unknown. Prevailing historical opinion holds that they prepared for battle by working themselves into a rage. That said, some scholars believe that the rage may have been induced by consuming quantities of fly agaric (Amanita muscaria), a hallucinogenic mushroom.
Whatever the root of berserker rage may have been, Sir Walter Scott might be credited with bringing the word into English and ultimately to other languages, as he was the first English-language author to be internationally known in his lifetime.
It also appeared in the Sept. 19, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.