Cake: Old Norse origin, more modern Scottish meaning

Words about words

cake - scotland

Highlands of Scotland, August 2017.

Asker, Norway

The word cake comes from the Middle English word kake, which in turn most likely came from the Old Norse feminine gender word kaka, the root of the modern Danish word kage and the modern Swedish word kaka, perhaps via the Old Teutonic word kakâ. It first appeared in English in 1230 in the Hali Meidenhad (literally “Holy Maidenhood”), an alliterative homily of the 13th century, extant in two manuscripts, one in the British Library in London and one in the Oxford University Bodleian Library.

Knowledge of the texts of those two manuscripts spread slowly throughout what is now the United Kingdom of four constituent nations: England, Northern Ireland, Scotland, and Wales. In Scotland, at the northern end of the island of Great Britain, linguistic innovation was further slowed by the fragmented geography of the country. In addition to the Highlands, the Midlands, and the Southern Uplands, Scotland has more than 700 islands, most in the Hebrides, Orkney, and Shetland island groups.

That fragmented geography led to Scotland being known in legend for its varieties of oatcakes. In one of his poems, Scottish poet Robert Burns (1759-1796) created a phrase that became an appellation for the country: “Hear, Land O’Cakes, and Brother Scots/Frae Maidenkirk to Johnie Groat’s (“On the late Captain Grose’s Peregrinations Thro’ Scotland”). So, with time, Scotland became known as “The Land of Cakes.” That takes its place along with Caledonia, the name in Latin that the Romans gave it, as a land north of their province of Britannia.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 12, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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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.