Mistake’s Norse origin

Words about words

word mistake

Photo: Marcin Wichary / Flickr
A Burma-Shave advertisement and one of many, many uses of the word mistake.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

The word mistake is a verb and a noun, both of which descend from the Old Norse verb mistaka, meaning “to take by mistake.” It may well be one of the oldest words recognizable from its earliest form.

The first record of it is in 1380, in the works of John Wycliffe (1320s-1384), the philosopher, theologian, Bible translator, and professor at the University of Oxford, who in the 14th century became a dissident within the Roman Catholic priesthood and is regarded as a significant predecessor to Protestantism. Wycliffe attacked the privileged status of and misuse of power by the clergy, in one case disparaging a clergyman by writing that “Þis office is dispised & cristes owne office is misse-taken.”

Today, mistake is a popular word in contemporary pop culture, as it now connotes being wrong about something or perhaps about everything. The latest of dozens of audio CD recordings with the word mistake in their titles is Grave Mounds and Grave Mistakes, by Forest of Stars, a leading UK avant-garde black metal band, released Sept. 28, 2018. The album celebrates Romantic Age poet William Blake’s proverb of Hell, “Exuberance is beauty.”

M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and, with time, turned to writing and translating.

This article originally appeared in the February 8, 2019, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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