Skiing, an English word of Norwegian heritage

Words about words

Photo: Robinseed / Wikimedia Commons
The word skiing, a compound of two words of Old Norse derivation, first designated what now is called alpine skiing.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

The word skiing is a compound of two words of Old Norse origin: “ski” from the Old Norse “skið” meaning cleft of wood and “-ing” from the Old Norse and Old English suffixes “-ung” or “-ing”, which form verbal derivatives. It was first used in 1921 in English by British writer and mountaineer Sir Arnold Lunn (1888-1974) in a hyphenated form “ski-ing.” With time, the hyphen disappeared, which is why “skiing” in English first principally connoted the alpine variety.

Lunn’s family was involved in tourism from Britain to the Swiss Alps, so it was there, in 1922 in the village of Mürren in the Bernese Highlands, that he organized the first slalom race and in 1931 the first downhill and slalom world championships. Hence “ski-ing” initially designated what now is called alpine skiing. With time, the other forms of skiing were given other names to distinguish them from the alpine variety, such as “cross-country skiing,” a cumbersome term for the original Scandinavian use of skis for wintertime transportation. 

Lunn also was the first to coin “to ski” as a verb in English. That set it apart from usages in the Scandinavian languages that have no equivalent verbs. In Norwegian, the verb for cross-country skiing is “å gå på ski,” literally “to walk on skis,” and the one for alpine skiing is “å kjøre alpint,” literally to “to drive alpine,” or “å stå på ski,” “to stand on skis.”

Curiously, in historical as well as modern Norwegian there’s a compound of the word “ski” from the Old Norse skið that is not associated with the modern sport of skiing. The word is “skigard,” a compound of “ski” and “gard,” a dialect word for “gjerde,” meaning “fence” in English. A “skigard” is the Norwegian word for what’s called a “rail fence” in English.

This article originally appeared in the February 7, 2020, issue of The Norwegian American.

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.