Viking: Old Norse origin doubtful

Words about words


Photo: Bodleian Library, Oxford University
First page of the Exodus manuscript.

Asker, Norway

The word “Viking” traditionally is traced back to the Old Norse and Icelandic word vík, meaning creek, inlet, or bay, plus the suffix -ing, via the Old English word wícing and the Old Frisian word witsing. Hence a Viking was a person who came from or frequented the inlets of the sea.

History suggests that the story of the word “Viking” may differ from the traditionally accepted one, as the word víkingr first appeared late in the 10th century. Two centuries earlier, the word wícingsceaða appeared in Anglo-Saxon glossaries, and the word sǽ-wícingas occurred in Exodus, an Old English alliterative poem that retells the story of the flight of the Israelites from Egyptian captivity and their crossing of the Red Sea, much in the style of a heroic epic, such as Beowulf. So it’s entirely possible that the predecessor terms of the word Viking appeared first in the Anglo-Frisian sphere of linguistic influence, and were later taken up by Scandinavian peoples. That adoption was most likely from the Old English term wíc camp, a temporary encampment often an attribute of Viking raids.

The further wandering of the word Viking into English took place slowly. In 1807, Scottish antiquarian and political writer George Chalmers (1742–1825) used it in “Caledonia, Or an Account, Historical and Topographic, of Northern Britain, from the most Ancient to the Present Times,” (Further reading) his major work, which he left incomplete. In the chapter on Orkney and Shetland of Book I, he tells the story of Torfin (1009–1074), who at age 14, “commenced his career as a vikingr.”

Further reading;
“Caledonia, Or an Account, Historical and Topographic, of Northern Britain, from the most Ancient to the Present Times” by George Chalmers, modern reprint edition by Arkose Press, sold by, 940 pages hardcover, publisher listing S.L., abbreviation of the Latin term Sine Loco, meaning “without (stated) place (of publication),” ISBN 978-1343616493.

This article originally appeared in the April 9, 2021, issue of The Norwegian American.

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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.