Call: Old Norse origin, many modern meanings

Words about words


Photo: Samuel Begg (1854-1936) in Public Domain, Project Gutenberg
Passing of the Parliament Bill in the House of Lords, 1911.

Asker, Norway

The word call comes from the Old Norse verb kalla, which means to call, cry, or shout, and to assert or claim, as by the modern Norwegian word kalle, which, like the English word call, has both verb and noun forms. It appeared first in English around the year 1000, in accounts of the Battle of Maldon near the town of Maldon in Essex, England, where in 991, Anglo-Saxon forces led by alderman Byrhtnoth were defeated by the Vikings, and Byrhtnoth was slain. 

The Battle of Maldon is the theme of an anonymous Old English poem inspired by the defeat, and in Maldon there’s a statue of its hero Byrhtnoth. English poet and scholar J.R.R. Tolkien (1892-1973), known for novels of fantasy such as The Lord of the Rings (1937), commemorated it in a short play in verse, “The Homecoming of Beorhtnoth.”

In modern English, the word call is a verb and from it, a noun. Historically it’s the keyword in many descriptions of voting in the rise of democracy, perhaps most famously in the passing in 1911 of the Parliament Act that thereafter governed the relationship between the House of Lords and the House of Commons of the British Parliament. In it, members of the houses are formally called to vote on pending legislation. 

That procedure is a prominent essential in the functioning of legislatures worldwide. In Congress, electric clocks throughout the Capitol and in congressional buildings have lights and buzzers that indicate activities of the Senate and the House of Representatives, including calls to vote.

This article originally appeared in the Feb. 26, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

Avatar photo

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.