Norwegian words in English: Elves
M. Michael Brady
The word elf in English comes from the Old Norse word álfr. Today it’s spelled in a similar way in Danish, alf, and in Norwegian, alv, words that have derivatives that appear in mythology, such as alvedans (“elfin dance”) and alveland (“fairyland”).
The word elf first appeared in Old English in the Anglo-Saxon poem Beowulf ca. 1000 and in its modern spelling in Chaucer’s “Man of Laws Tale,” the fifth of the Canterbury Tales, ca. 1386.
Elves were originally believed to be supernatural beings that personified nature and appealed to erotic feelings in Norse mythology. There’s no record of whether those characteristics transferred along with the word elf into English. But with time, in English as well as the Nordic languages, elves acquired other habits and personages, some demonic, some playful.
An elf could assume the form of an incubus (from the Latin incubo, meaning “to lie upon”), a male demon that lies upon sleeping women to have sex with them. The female counterpart is the succubus. Elves had a less erotic, more demonic character in Norway. They were believed to cause various illnesses; to this day in Norwegian, the everyday word for urticaria rash (“hives”) is elveblest, a modern spelling of alveblest (literally “elf-fuss”).
Interestingly, elf originally meant a male fairy in English; the feminine equivalent was elven. But alv in Norwegian originally almost always meant a beautiful, young female fairy.
It also appeared in the Nov. 7, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (800) 305-0271.