To have your cake and speak it: Norwegian words in English
M. Michael Brady
The word cake in English comes from the old Norse word kaka.
Today it’s spelled the Old Norse way in Swedish and nearly so, with one vowel change, as kake in Norwegian and Danish. In English cake was first mentioned ca. 1230, in the Hali Meidhad (Holy Maidenhood), a text praising the virtues of virginity over marriage.
That early entry into English led to a rebound. The plural cakes became a loanword in Norwegian, kjeks (biscuit). A similar transmogrification occurred within English. A thin, hard-baked oaten bread came to be called “cake” in Scotland.
That led to the Scottish Lowlands being named “Land of Cakes.” In turn that led to poetic mention, with scientific impact.
Lord (Charles) Neaves (1800-1876), judge of the Court of Session of Scotland, was also an accomplished poet. He published a book of verse in 1875 reflecting his early analyses of the history of evolution. In it, there’s a poem in praise of one of his predecessors, James Burnett, Lord Monboddo (1714-1799)—one of the originators of the concepts of evolution that were the precursors to the scientific theories formulated by Darwin:
Though Darwin now proclaims the law
And spreads it far abroad, O!
The man that first the secret saw
Was honest old Monboddo.
The architect precedence takes
Of him that bears the hod, O!
So up and at them, Land of Cakes,
We’ll vindicate Monboddo
The Old Norse kake also had sibling words that became the roots of other words in English. An example is kok (“clump”, as of dough) that became the Dutch word koekje (“little cake”). This migrated to the English word cookie.
It also appeared in the Oct. 24, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.