Norwegian words in English: Lemming

Photo: Wikimedia Commons “Lemmings in Migration,” illustration from Popular Science Monthly in 1877.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons
“Lemmings in Migration,” illustration from Popular Science Monthly in 1877.

M. Michael Brady
The Foreigner

The word lemming comes from the older Norwegian lemende, which in turn comes from the Old Norse lómundr of unknown origin. Lemming first appeared in English in 1607, in “The History of Four-footed Beasts” by English cleric and author Edward Topsell (1572-1625).

Author Topsell apparently was awed by lemmings, which are sometimes seen in large numbers. His description was that “There are certaine little Foure-footed beastes called Lemmar, or Lemmus, which in tempestuous and rainy weather, do seeme to fall downe from the cloudes.”

That description wasn’t original. The theory that lemmings fell out of the sky in stormy weather had been put forth by geographer Jacob Zeigler of Strasbourg in the 1530s. Of course, geographer Zeigler was way off the mark in theorizing about the behavior of an animal species. In the mid 18th century, Swedish botanist and zoologist Carl Linnaeus conclusively proved lemmings to be just another species of small rodent.

Nonetheless, oddball theories about lemmings persisted well into the 20th century, such as the myth that they often committed mass suicide. Lemmings are not suicidal. But the combination of fluctuations in populations and their penchant to migrate in large groups sometimes can be perilous.

These and other behavioral traits of the species have recently been dealt with scientifically in an incisive Norwegian study published in 2002 by the Norwegian Academy of Sciences and Letters.

This article was originally published on The Foreigner. To subscribe to The Foreigner, visit theforeigner.no.

It also appeared in the Oct. 10, 2014 issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.

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