What’s a felæger?
Words about words
M. Michael Brady
Words come and go in Norwegian, as they do in other languages. Often words fall into disuse in everyday language yet persist in some sectors. One such word in Norwegian is felæger, sometimes spelled feleger. In everyday texts, it’s arcane. But it appears frequently in texts on hiking and outdoor life on the Hardanger Plateau and in the surrounding mountain regions.
A clue to that regional usage is in the word itself, a two-part compound. The first syllable is fe, the term for cloven-hoofed farm animals such as cattle and sheep. The second part, læger, designates a resting place for people and animals in mountainous areas. Indeed, a felæger is a pen or a building where cattle or sheep are rested or kept temporarily while being moved from one place to another. The Hardanger Plateau was once prominent in the practice of transhumance—the seasonal moving of livestock to summer pasture at higher elevation—so along routes used, there would be one or more felæger, usually built of stones. The origin of the word isn’t known, but its first appearance in print is known, in 1858 in Fra Skov og Fjeld (From forests and mountains) by Nicolai Ramm Østgaard (1885-1958), a military officer and longtime president of the International Ski Federation (FIS). In English, felæger translates to “cattle lairage”: a building or a pen where cattle or sheep are rested or temporarily kept on their way to market.
Today, the word felæger is not an entry in everyday dictionaries but is in concise ones, such as in NOAB, the Norwegian Academy for Language online dictionary (“NAOB er her!” July 25, 2018: www.norwegianamerican.com/norsk/naob-er-her), as it has survived in the names of places on and around the Hardanger Plateau. One of the best preserved is Halnelægeret at the north tip of the Halnefjord, that despite its name is not a fjord at sea level but rather a mountain lake above the timber line.
M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and, with time, turned to writing and translating.
This article originally appeared in the March 22, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.