Norwegian words in English: Telemark
M. Michael Brady
Look up the word Telemark in the dictionary of almost any European language, and you’ll find that it’s a term in skiing meaning a swing turn with one ski advanced and the other ski trailing with the skier’s knee bent, used to change direction or stop. If the etymology of the word appears, it will state that that the technique is named for the fylke (county) of Norway where the technique originated.
The story of that naming is straightforward. Shortly after the turn of the last century, the first ski-jumping rules committee met to work out the norms for judging ski jumping style at the annual Holmenkollen meets held in the capital city of Christiania, also spelled Kristiania, as Oslo then was named. In defining terms ca. 1903, they chose to honour the two main groups of competitors, those hailing from Telemark county and those from the capital city itself, by giving the names of their two home locales to the two styles of turns then used by ski jumpers in turning to a stop after landing. The style of turn with one ski trailing was called Telemarksving (Telemark turn), and the style with skis parallel was called Kristianiasving or Christianiasving (Christiania turn). The naming was arbitrary, as the jumpers from both locales used both styles of turn.
The Christiania turn became the “Christy” of Alpine skiing, a term that fell into disuse with the improvements in Alpine skiing techniques and equipment of the 1970s. But in 1974, its historical significance was honored by naming a residential street in Oslo Kristianiasving.
The designator Telemark survived in ski jumping, as it also was used in the word Telemarknedslag (Telemark landing), the jumping rules specification of style for completing the flight of a jump. The “Telemark turn” also survived in back country ski touring, from whence it came. Then in the 1970s, American recreational skiers experimenting with new techniques used the Telemark turn in lift-hill Alpine skiing. The usage spread, and Telemark skiing became popular around the world. Ski industries responded by making models of skis, boots, and bindings for it. A cult of Telemark skiers grew, and Telemark became a racing event, similar to Alpine ski racing but differing in the ways turns were executed.
A linguistic historian might ask what the name of that newer style of recreational and competitive Alpine skiing might be today had the 1903 ski jumping rules committee assigned the two names the other way round. Certainly there would be much argument, as in 1925, the name of the city of Christiania was changed to Oslo. Might we have an “Oslo turn,” or would we have retained the “Telemark turn” with the explanation that it was a historical name?
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 19, 2016, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.