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What’s in a Word: Víking(r)

Two articles are long overdue on this website: When did the Viking Age begin and end? and What does the word ‘Viking’ mean? I will answer the first question in a forthcoming article after I have published more on the various regions where Vikings raided and settled. And that’s a big hint if you’ve ever needed one!

For the second question, like many of you, I thought ‘Viking’ is a synonym for Scandinavian raiders, or pirates if you like, in the early Middle Ages. As I’m not a linguist, my reflex, for good or bad, is to turn to Google and take it from there. Here are five results I tracked on the first results page:

1 The Conversation – very high up, is a very informative article by Judith Jesch, professor in Viking Studies. More on this below.

2 Wikipedia – often in Wiki-articles you can’t see the burning embers for all that smoke. This article, however, has a long paragraph describing the etymology of the word. Plenty of sources, but… are they reliable?

3 Cambridge Dictionary Online – “a person belonging to a race of Scandinavian people who travelled by sea and attacked parts of northern and southern Europe between the 8th and the 11th centuries, often staying to live in places they travelled to.”

4 Norse Mythology.net – an interesting article covering most of the information on Wikipedia. From scholarly references (from the 1960s) to runes, sagas to its current use.

5 Hurstwic – this site is from a knowledgeable living history group. The word ‘Viking’ is discussed as someone from ‘Vik’, or used as a noun and verb in runes, but that its origin remains hazy.

To Pirate… or?

The idea of Vikings as pirates has had a surprisingly long life. Centuries, actually. The link is first made in the Icelandic sagas written in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Here, the Vikings are the bad guys who need to be conquered by the saga’s hero (preferably a Christian king or nobleman).1 But the sagas are written at least two hundred years after the end of the Viking Age. The writers in this society have different morals and insights than those who lived in the early Middle Ages. That’s a gap almost as wide as our 21st-century eyes looking back on the Victorian period. In the past decades, though, scholars have given this view of the Vikings an overhaul and phrased a more nuanced version. Vikings may have been pirates and raiders, but they were also traders and settlers.

Noun, not a Verb

And with this changing view, there is another, big lesson to learn. The answer to the question. That ‘Viking’ does not necessarily mean a pirate, or someone going pirating. The Icelandic scribes did not invent the word, they only adapted its meaning for their own use. It existed in runes and skaldic poetry even before the Viking Age. And in these writings it is a noun. Not a verb. The consensus on its etymology is that ‘vík’ means ‘creek, inlet’, and the suffix ‘-ing(r)’ refers to ‘someone from the area [of that creek]’. In other words, someone who lives near and likely travels via water. That is its core explanation, we still don’t know if its meaning only applied to a person in general, or specifically when (s)he acted in violence or peace..2

There is also an entry from The Oxford English Dictionary of 1989 suggesting an etymology tracing back to Old Frisian, but I could not follow this lead in online sources so I don’t know how relevant it is.3

The Definition

Apart from its etymology, what is a Viking? The definition I like best from what I’ve read so far is:

In the academic world, “Viking” is used for people of Scandinavian origin or with Scandinavian connections who were active in trading and settlement as well as piracy and raiding, both within and outside Scandinavia in the period 750–1100. The Viking Age was a large and complex phenomenon which went far beyond the purely military, and also absorbed people who were not originally of Scandinavian ethnicity.4

So, Google results with the highest relevance are not that bad… but still, it’s a good habit to look beyond its first page! And I expect to update this article over time as I find more relevant information!

References


  1. Judith Jesch, ‘What does the word ‘Viking’ really mean?’ The Conversation Published 05 April 2017. Last Accessed 08 March 2020.  ↩
  2. Judith Jesch, ‘Vikings and Víkingar’ Norse and Viking Ramblings Published 27 February 2015. Last Accessed 08 March 2020. Roderick Dale, ‘#Viking is not a verb!. Berserkjablogg by Dr Roderick Dale Published 03 August 2017. Last Accessed 08 March 2020.  ↩
  3. David Beard, ‘Etymology of the Word Viking.’ Last Accessed 08 March 2020.  ↩
  4. Jesch (2017).  ↩

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