Words about words: Gift

From Old Norse directly to today’s lingo


Photo: Pxhere
In the Germanic languages, the story of the word “gift” is an interesting and somewhat complicated one. In Norwegian, it can mean both “married” and “poison,” but in English, it is another word for “present.”

Asker, Norway

The word gift comes directly from Old Norse gipt, meaning “something given,” the transfer of something gratuitously from a giver to a receiver. The word is related to the Old Norse verb gefa, meaning “give,” from which the Norwegian verb gi is derived, also meaning “give.”

That said, in English, its principal modern meaning is that of present, as a birthday present or a Christmas present, and is just one of many original usages. 

In Old Norse, as it was transferred into Old English, the singular noun gipt meant “payment for a wife,” and as a plural noun applied to weddings. Far from modern-day weddings, in which both partners are equal before the law, marriage once involved a father “giving away” his daughter, which is still the case in many cultures around the world.

Those matrimonial usages led to a forest of subordinate usages, such as dowry, traditionally the money, goods, or an estate that a wife brings to her husband in marriage.

But in Norwegian today, gift has other meanings. Used as an adjective, gift also came to mean “married,” and then to the confusion of many a language-learner, used as a noun, gift means “poison.”

But there is an explanation. In Germany, the word gipt went on a very different etymological journey. Several centuries ago, the word gift was used to mean “present” in German, but over time, the meaning changed. Around the year 800, the world became used solely as a euphemism for poison (something most certainly given to you as an unwelcome gift or present). Later, Swedish, Danish, and subsequently, Norwegian, borrowed the noun gift back from German with the meaning of poison.

Today, the Norwegian word for present is gave in bokmål and gåve in nynorsk, words that stem from the Old Norse verb gefa. Logically, the word for Christmas gift is julegave or julegåve in Norwegian, namely, a “Yule gift.”

So, this year, you may think back on the interesting journeys these words have taken over the centuries, as you pack and unpack your Christmas presents. Happy gifting!

This article originally appeared in the Nov. 19, 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.