Birth, commonplace, but not in modern Norwegian

Words about words

Birth Louis VIII

Image: Wikimedia / unknown 13th century artist
Miniature painting of King Louis VIII (1187-1226).

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

The word birth is believed to be an adaptation of the Old Norse byrð(i)r, which was borrowed into Middle English and designates the act of a mother in giving birth. It apparently was not taken further in Norwegian, as the modern Norwegian word for giving birth is føde, which comes from the Old Norse føða, which meant “to bear.”

Birth was first mentioned in Cursor Mundi (Latin for “Runner of the World”), a Middle English poem of almost 30,000 lines, written anonymously about 1300 A.D. somewhere in northern England. The poem is an overview of the then-known history of the world, as described in the Bible and other sources, including the Historia Scholastica, an early printed work that appeared in 1470. In Cursor Mundi line 10,575 reads: ”Quen Anna was cummen to time of birþ, Sco bar þat maiden,” line 10,886 reads “For þi of þe beþ born a burþ”, and line 22,092 reads “Right sua sal þe feind, ches him a birth-sted iwiss.”

In 1387, one of Geoffrey Chaucer’s poems, “Moder of God,” has a line that reads: “The birthe of Cryst our thraldom putte vs fro.”

In the 16th century, Shakespeare mentioned birth in the narrative poem “Rape of Lucrece” – “Worse than a slavish wipe or birth-hours blot” and in at least three plays, in the early comedy “Love’s Labor’s Lost” – “When great things labouring perish in their birth,” and in two historical plays: “Henry VI” – “By her he had two children at one birth” and “The Life and Death of King John” – “At thy birth, deere boy, Nature and Fortune ioyn’d to make thee great.”

In the 20th century, birth increasingly appeared in combining forms. In 1934, in the era when Burma was ruled from Delhi, English journalist, novelist, and critic George Orwell published the novel “Burmese Days,” a portrait of the dark side of the British Raj, in which a character description reads: “His birthmarked cheek.”

This article originally appeared in the December 27, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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