Words about words
M. MICHAEL BRADY
The word “thunder,” the explosive resounding sound produced by the rapid expansion of air heated by a lightning discharge, is derived from the Old Norse word for it that also is the name of the god of Norse mythology held responsible for its creation, þórr, pronounced “thorn.”
The þórr is also the name of a rune, which is a character in an ancient alphabet used in Scandinavia and in Britain for about 10 centuries, starting around the year 200. In writing, runes were abbreviated by the first letters of their names. Hence in the modern spelling of the Latin alphabet, the written runic letter þ became known as the “thorn.” At the keyboard of a modern computer, you can reproduce the thorn in lower case þ by keying in ASCII code 231 and in capital letters Þ by keying in ASCII code 232.
The Scandinavian variant of the runic alphabet is known as the FUÞARK, the names of the first six runes of it, of which Þ, the “thorn,” is the third. The classical example of the use of the FUÞARK is the Codex Runicus that is the oldest and best-preserved text of the Scanian Law compiled in Denmark from 1202 to 1216 and is one of the first Nordic provincial laws to be written.
A linguistic curiosity of the subsequent centuries is that the “th” sound of Þ may have been lost in antiquity. The modern Norwegian word for thunder is torden, which also is derived from the Old Norse word þórr.
Further reading and reference:
Store norske leksikon, abbreviated SNL (Great Norwegian Encyclopedia) 4 print editions 1978-2007; now online only at meta.snl.no/Great_Norwegian_Encyclopedia.
Definition of keyword Tor at snl.no/Tor_-_i_norr%C3%B8n_mytologi.
This article originally appeared in the March 18, 2022, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.