Rallar and beslegge

Newer Norwegian words linked by history


Photo: Harvey Henkelmann / Wikimedia

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

According to the Global Language Monitor (www.languagemonitor.com), English now has more than a million words, and 5,400 new words are added each year. There are no analogous counts for Norwegian. But by comparing the numbers of words in the most comprehensive dictionaries, Norwegian has about half as many words as English. In turn, that suggests that each year the Norwegian vocabulary adds about half as many words as does English.

For readers of this newspaper, the meanings of many of the new words added to Norwegian each year (as last year’s “Words of the Year,” The Norwegian American, Dec. 29, 2017: www.norwegianamerican.com/featured/top-ten-new-norwegian-words-2017) may be readily apparent, as they are Norwegianizations of or translations from contemporary English words. Not so for some new words unrelated to any other outside Scandinavia. Two examples are Rallar and beslegge, words linked in Rallartiden (Rallar Time), the era of manual labor building of railways in Sweden and Norway, before the work was done by machines. Rallartiden lasted from the 1870s through the 1920s and has become legendary, much like the Wild West of the USA.

The word Rallar comes from Swedish in which it designates a man working in railway construction. Even so, its origin is unclear. It most often is said to have been derived from the Swedish word rallväg, a Swedification of railway in English. But it may also have come from the Swedish word ralla for a pedal-powered rail velocipede used in rail line inspection and maintenance. Likewise, the translation of Rallar into English remains imprecise. By work done, the most faithful translation is into the British English term navy, a North England dialect word that came from “navigation” and designated a worker involved in the excavation and construction of earthworks, as for canals and railways. The translation into American English usually is to gandy dancer. The origin of that term isn’t known exactly, though it’s assumed to have been descriptive of the dance-like movements of the section hands of a work gang, one of which would hold a “gandy,” the term for a lining bar used to ensure proper alignment of the rails. In turn, the word gandy is said to have come from the name of a “Gandy Company” of Chicago that made the tools used by gandy dancers. But that has been doubted, as the Chicago Historical Society has been unable to find a Gandy Company in its old records. As for Rallar, the origin of gandy remains in lexicographic limbo.

Photo: Harvey Henkelmann / Wikimedia
Above: A man rides a modern rail velocipede. The Swedish name for this conveyance, ralla, may be the source of Rallar.

There have been many books with Rallar themes; among the first and perhaps most known is the Swedish Rallare, published in 1909 by Elf Norrbo, the pseudonym of labor movement writer Johan August Törnblom (1862-1933), who when young had worked as a Rallar. The legend of Rallartiden is evident today in cultural monuments. Haul roads built to facilitate the transport of equipment, men, and materials in the building of rail lines have become Rallarveg (Rallar Roads), now maintained for use by cyclists and hikers, such as those along the Bergensbanen (Bergen Line) and Ofotbanen (Ofot Line) Railways. There’s a Rallar Museum at Finse, the midpoint of Bergensbanen. In Narvik there’s Rallarklubben (The Rallar Club) founded in 1981 and dedicated to perpetuating the Rallar legend, and an annual Vinterfestuka (Winter Festival Week) that features Rallar themes. Around the country there are nine Rallar statues, of which the most known is in Narvik, Rallar’n by Norwegian sculptor Trygve Thorsen (1892-1965), unveiled July 17, 1959, by King Olav V.

The word beslegge, a verb, and beslegging, a verbal noun formed from it, are words that have come into Norwegian within the last 60 years. Beslegge itself is a derivative verb, which as in English, was formed by adding the be- prefix to the existing word slegge (sledgehammer), resulting in a paraphrasing of bekranse (bewreath). So beslegge means “to decorate with a sledge hammer,” just as bewreath means “to decorate with a wreath.” So as in in the bewreathing of commemorative statues elsewhere, each year, during Vinterfestuka in Narvik, the Rallar Club holds a beslegging ceremony at the Rallar’n statue, decorating it with a sledgehammer in commemoration of the work of the Rallar. The Fremover newspaper of Narvik regularly covers beslegging events, as do other media in northern Norway. Though in the mainstream there, beslegging is not in any Norwegian dictionary. That may soon change, as beslegge is a regionalism now being considered for inclusion in NAOB, the Norwegian Academy Dictionary.

For more on the work of the Rallar, read “Miners and rail lines and bears, oh my!” by M. Michael Brady, published in the June 15, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American: www.norwegianamerican.com/travel/miners-and-rail-lines-and-bears-oh-my.

This article originally appeared in the July 13, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

Avatar photo

M. Michael Brady

M. Michael Brady was born, raised, and educated as a scientist in the United States. After relocating to the Oslo area, he turned to writing and translating. In Norway, he is now classified as a bilingual dual national.