Søtvier to Nightshade
Norwegian to English via botany
M. MICHAEL BRADY
The seemingly dissimilar words “søtvier” in Norwegian and “nightshade” in English evolved separately for centuries, each with specific usages within the society of its origin. Then, during the Columbian Exchange, named after Christopher Columbus and designating the surge of interaction of the 15th and 16th centuries between the Old and New worlds, peoples took their ideas, cultures, technologies, plants, and animals wherever they went. The impacts on languages were chaotic, and as the etymologies of these two words illustrate, often took centuries to settle down.
The Norwegian word “søtvier” designates a family of 95 species of flowering plants. Among them are many vegetables, including potatoes, tomatoes, chili peppers, and aubergine, the fruit of the eggplant. The historical origin of the word itself most likely is a compound of two Old Norse words: the word “søt” from the Old Norse søtr, meaning “sweet,” and “vier” from the Old Norse vìðir, meaning “willow plant.”
The English word “nightshade” descends from the Old English word nihtscada that is believed to allude to plants with narcotic berries. It first appeared around the year 1000 in “Ælfric’s Colloquy,” by Ælfric, the abbot of a Benedictine abbey in Eynsham, Oxfordshire, England, as an aid to help novice monks learn Latin. Little is known about Ælfric, but his style of writing suggests that he was from the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex.
The botanical classifications of “søtvier” and “nightshade” are identical. Hence the two words are just different names for the same plant that belongs to Solanum, the name in Latin of a large genus of flowering plants that first was used by Pliny Elder (23 – 79), a philosopher of the early Roman Empire.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 22, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.