1000 ords historie

Book tells the history of a thousand words

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway
1000 ords historie

1000 ords historie (The histories of 1,000 words) might classify as an etymology, because it is an account of the origins and evolutions of the meanings of a thousand Norwegian words. But its subtitle, Illustrert med Kuriøse Annonser & Fotografiske Minner fra vår nære fortid (Illustrated with curious advertisements and photographic memorabilia from our recent past), suggests that it’s no ordinary one. That departure from the norm for its category of literary composition reflects the penchant of its author Per Holck , also medical doctor, anthropologist, and archaeologist, often mentioned in Norwegian media in connection with forensic medicine because he frequently consults in court cases.

Holck is a prolific author who has published 14 books on subjects in cultural history and folklore. 1000 ords historie is his most recent book and his first foray into the literary genre of etymology. His pen is light and his approach entertaining. This book is a grand tour of the ways in which the evolutions of words were perceived by the people experiencing them.

The book is a page-turner, and many of the advertisements and photos reproduced are stoppers. Much as viewing photos in a family album can reawaken memories of incidents forgotten; several photos in the book reflect lesser-known aspects of their times. Perhaps most intriguing is the photo of a taxi driver taken in December 1958. Its caption is “Drosjesjåfør 1958” (Taxi driver 1958) and shows a man behind the steering wheel of what most likely is his taxicab. It’s a Mercedes Benz 220a Ponton series diesel taxi, a post-World War II model used extensively throughout Europe. He’s wearing a natty visored cap, part of the taxi owner/driver uniform of the time. The word for the vehicle is the traditional Norwegian one, drosje, from the German word Droschke, derived from the Russian dróžki (light car), and plausibly related to the Norwegian word dra (to pull or to travel). He’s wearing gloves, a scarf, and a winter coat. So apparently the vehicle heater isn’t on. In turn, that reflects practice of the time: before the wartime and postwar restrictions on the import of cars were lifted in 1960, one of the ways an owner extended the life of a vehicle was to avoid letting its motor idle just to stay warm during a prolonged standstill. Two decades later, those restrictions were forgotten. Cars were freely imported; owners could enjoy the luxury of letting a motor run to keep a car warm in winter, and the term for a public passenger vehicle fitted with a meter for the payment of a fare increasingly was taxi, a loanword from English when it first appeared in print in 1907.

Norwegian taxi drive

Photo: Dagbladet / Norsk Folkemuseum
Taxi driver in uniform (book page 404).

Words have always flowed freely among the languages of the countries around the North Sea Basin, including Norway and the United Kingdom. With the great emigration from Norway to America of the 19th century, that free flow expanded to include the United States and Canada. There’s evidence aplenty of that. An outstanding everyday example is QWERTY, the name in Norwegian borrowed from the same word in English-speaking countries that designated the standard layout, the first six letters from the left on the top row of letter keys, on typewriters (and now computer keyboards). Unsurprisingly, that word transfer followed in the wake of the commercial success in the 1870s of typewriters made by Remington of the United States, the first to be imported in quantity into Norway.

The book: 1000 ords historie (The histories of 1000 words) by Per Holck, 2017, stocked by Norwegian online booksellers Adlibaris, Haugenboki, Norli, and Tanum.

This article originally appeared in the December 28, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.