Words about words: A term that took the long way into English

Photo: Soldatnytt
Fish drying on a “fish flake” in Svolvær.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

Outdoor drying of fish using sun and wind is a method of food preservation that has been practiced since ancient times. So the words associated with fish drying reveal much about the cultures and movements of fishing peoples through time. An outstanding example is fish flake, the term in English for an outdoor structure for open-air drying of fish.

The two words of it attest to its Nordic heritage. The word fish is derived from a shared Teutonic word, fisc in Old English and fiskr in Old Norse. It migrated well into English, as English speakers and Nordic-language speakers interacted through the centuries.

The word flake is derived from the Old Norse fleke, the name for a hurdle, which is a rectangular frame on which wool was beaten. Its journey into English took a long way round. It traveled first into Newfoundland English, the dialect of English found in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador of Canada, brought there in the early 17th century by the first settlers from the West Country of England. According to the Dictionary of Newfoundland English (University of Toronto Press, 2nd edition 1980), it first appeared in print in 1623 and designated “a platform built on poles and spread with boughs for drying cod fish on the foreshore.” So the term fish flake reflects the history of English people who crossed the Atlantic to settle eastern Canada.

As listed in bilingual dictionaries, fish flake translates directly to fiskehjell, a compound of fisk (little changed from Old Norse) and hjell, from the Old Norse hjallr, the name for a fish-drying rack. The modern version of fiskehjell is the A-frame fiskehesje (pictured here), invented in 1912 by Jens Eriksen from Bø in Vesterålen. It, too, is a compound derived from Old Norse words, hesje coming from the Old Norse hes, the name for a hay-drying rack. So the terms hjell and fiskehesje reflect the history of Norwegians who stayed put and adopted another farming technique to improve fish drying.

Originally published in Norwegian on the Clue dictionaries blog at blogg.clue.no.

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 3, 2017, 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.