Norwegian words in English: Knife
M. Michael Brady
The word knife in English comes from the old Old Norse word kníf. It most likely entered English vocabulary about 1100, according to mention of it in the definitive reference Anglo-Saxon and Old-English Vocabularies by Thomas Wright and Richard P.Wülcker, published in London in 1883.
Knives most likely predate history, so there are innumerable varieties of them suited to their uses in battle, as tools and as household implements. But people ate with knives, sometimes two, one in each hand before forks were introduced into Europe – by Theophano Sklereina, the Byzantine wife of Holy Roman Emperor Otto II, at an imperial banquet in the year 972.
Knife is one the few words of Norwegian origin in English that was assimilated along with some of its figurative uses. The English phrase “war to the knife”, meaning a relentless war, is the direct equivalent of krig på kniven in Norwegian. Likewise, use of “the knife” as a synonym for surgical intervention is the direct equivalent of kniven in Norwegian, and to have a knife at one’s throat is the direct equivalent of ha kniven på strupen.
Though words and figures of speech concerning knives travelled well from Norwegian to English, travel in the reverse direction is notable by its absence. Finds in Viking burial mounds have shown that the Vikings occasionally used the scramasax, a large fighting knife developed and used by the Franks. But there’s no word for it in Norwegian.
It also appeared in the Oct. 17, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.