Norwegian words in English: Walrus

Photo: Joel Garlich Miller / Wikimedia Commons

Photo: Joel Garlich Miller / Wikimedia Commons

M. Michael Brady
The Foreigner

The walrus could be the answer to a Q&A joke for which the question is “What do the Arctic, The Beatles, Lewis Carroll, and J.R.R. Tolkien have in common?

Save for whales that live in water, the walrus is by far the largest mammal of the Arctic, with adult males weighing 2,000 kg or more—thrice the weight of an adult polar bear.

“I am the Walrus” is the title of a song by The Beatles, written in 1967. It was featured in a television sound track and recorded on the flip side of the best-selling EP single record “Hello, Goodbye.”

The walrus of the song refers to “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” a poem by Lewis Carroll in his book Through the Looking-Glass. The walrus enters the poem in the fourth stanza:

“The Walrus and the Carpenter
Were walking close at hand:
The wept like anything to see
Such quantities of sand:
‘If this were only cleared away,’
They said, ‘it would be grand!’”

Before he became the celebrated author of The Lord of the Rings, J.R.R. Tolkien was a professor of English. At the start of his career, he worked for the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) in 1919-1920 and was assigned to work on words beginning with W.

Some words, including walrus, apparently were given to Tolkien because he was skilled in philology and could pursue the histories of words that had difficult etymologies.
He handwrote many versions of the etymology of walrus, of which six survive in the OED archives. The most likely one, Tolkien felt, was hrossvalir, the Old Norse word for “horse-whale,” which became horschwæl in Old English and walrus in modern English.

This article was originally published on The Foreigner. To subscribe to The Foreigner, visit

It also appeared in the Oct. 31, 2014, issue of the Norwegian American Weekly.

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