139 Old Norse Words That Invaded The English Language

Without the Vikings, English would be missing some awesome words like berserk, ugly, muck, skull, knife, die, and cake!
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139 Old Norse Words That Invaded The English Language

When I say “Old English” what comes to mind? The ornate, hard-to-read script? Reading Beowulf in your high school English class? The kinds of figurative compound nouns — or kennings — like “swan of blood” and “slaughter-dew” that have sustained heavy metal lyrics for decades?

Old English, also known as Anglo-Saxon, was a language spoken by the Angles and the Saxons — the first Germanic tribes to settle the British Isles. They were not the first inhabitants, as any Welsh or Gaelic speaker will tell you, but their language did form the basis for the Angle-ish we speak today. But then why can’t we modern-day English speakers understand Old English? In terms of vocabulary, grammar and syntax, Old English resembles its cousins Dutch and German more than it does modern English. So how did English change so drastically?

The short answer is that the English language changed forever after the Norman invasion brought a new ruling class of French speakers to the British Isles in 1066. French was the language of the nobility for the next 300 years — plenty of time for lots of French words to trickle down to the merchant and peasant classes. For example, the Anglo-Saxons already had words for “sheep” and “cows,” but the Norman aristocracy — who usually only saw these animals on the plate — introduced mouton (mutton) and boeuf (beef). Today, nearly thirty percent of English words come from French.

As a result, modern English is commonly thought of as a West Germanic language with lots of French and, thanks to the church, Latin influence. But this history of English’s development leaves out a very important piece of the linguistic puzzle: Old Norse, the language of the Vikings.

How To Speak Viking

The Old Norse noun víking meant an overseas expedition, and a vikingr was someone who went on one of these expeditions. In the popular imagination, the Vikings were essentially pirates from the fjords of Denmark and Norway who descended on medieval England like a bloodthirsty frat party; they raped, pillaged, murdered, razed villages and then sailed back across the North Sea with the loot.

But the truth is far more nuanced. The earliest Viking activity in England did consist of coastal raids in the early ninth century, but by the 870s the Danes had traded sword for plow and were settled across most of Northern England in an area governed by treaties known as the Danelaw. England even had Danish kings from 1018 to 1042. However, the more successful and longer-lasting Norman conquest in 1066 marked the end of the Viking era and virtually erased Danish influence in almost all aspects of English culture but one: its effect on the development of the English language.

Traust me, þó (though) it may seem oddi at first, we er still very líkligr to use the same words as the Vikings did in our everyday speech. Þeirra (their) language evolved into the modern-day Scandinavian languages, but þeir (they) also gave English the gift of hundreds of words.

[A note on the letter þ: the Old Norse letter, called thorn, makes the same sound as the “th” in “thin”.]

Names Of Days

The most obvious Viking influence on modern English is the word Thursday (Þorsdagr), which you can probably guess means “Thor’s day.”

“Tuesday,” “Wednesday” and “Friday” are sometimes also attributed to the Norse gods Tyr, Odin and Freya, respectively; but the days are actually named for the Anglo-Saxon equivalents of these gods, Tiw, Wodan and Friga. The similarity of these names points to the common ancestry of the various Germanic tribes in prehistoric northern Europe — centuries before their descendants clashed on England’s shores.

War And Violence

If the Vikings are famous for one thing, it’s their obsession with war. They didn’t just bring death and destruction to England in the Middle Ages, they brought really cool words for death and destruction. They were certainly a rough bunch. Just look at a Viking the rangr way, and he might þrysta (thrust) a knifr into your skulle.

Here are some more violent words we can thank the Vikings for:

English Old Norse Meaning
berserk berserkr lit. “bear-shirt.”

A Viking warrior who entered battle wearing

nothing for armor but an animal skin.

club klubba a heavy, blunt weapon
gun gunn Originates from the female name Gunnhildr:

gunn and hildr translate to “war” and “battle.”

ransack rannsaka to search a house
scathe skaða to injure
slaughter slatra  to butcher

Society & Culture

But life in the Danelaw wasn’t all murder and mayhem. Ironically, these savage berserkers also gave us words that are central to our “civilized” culture:

English Old Norse Meaning
bylaw bylög village-law
heathen heiðinn one who inhabits the heath or open country
Hell Hel Norse mythology: Loki’s daughter and ruler of the underworld
husband húsbóndi hús (house) + bóndi (occupier and tiller of soil)
law lag
litmus lit-mosi litr (dye) + mosi (moss)
loan lán to lend
sale sala
skill skil distinction
steak steik to fry
thrall þræll slave
thrift þrift prosperity
tidings tíðindi news of events
yule jol a pagan winter solstice feast


Although most English animal names retain their Anglo-Saxon roots (cow, bear, hound, swine, chicken, etc) the Vikings did bring certain animals terms into the vernacular:

English Old Norse Meaning
bug búkr an insect within tree trunks
bull boli
reindeer hreindyri
skate skata fish
wing vængr

Some words associated with hunting and trapping also come from Old Norse. Sleuth now means “detective,” but the original slóth meant “trail” or “track.” Snare, on the other hand, retains the original meaning of O.N. snara.

The Landscape

Old Norse is good at describing bleikr landscapes and weather. This was especially useful in the Vikings’ adopted northern England, where flatr or rogg (rugged) terrain can be shrouded in fok, and oppressed by gustr of wind and lagr (low) ský (clouds).

Much of the Danelaw bordered swamps and alluvial plains, so it’s no surprise that many Norse words for dirty, mucky things survive in English:

English Old Norse Meaning
dirt drit excrement
dregs dregg sediment
mire myrr bog
muck myki cow dung
rotten rotinn

The Norse Legacy in English

Thanks to the cross-cultural fermentation that occured in the Danelaw — and later when England was temporarily absorbed into Canute the Great’s North Sea Kingdom — the English language is much closer to that of its Scandinavian neighbors than many acknowledge. By the time the Norman conquest brought the irreversible influence of French, Old English had already been transformed beyond its Anglo-Saxon roots.

This is still in evidence today; modern English grammar and syntax are more similar to modern Scandinavian languages than to Old English. This suggests that Old Norse didn’t just introduce new words, but influenced how the Anglo-Saxons constructed their sentences. Some linguists even claim that English should be reclassified as a North Germanic language (along with Danish, Norwegian, Icelandic and Swedish), rather than a West Germanic language (with Dutch and German). The Viking influence may be most apparent in the Yorkshire dialect, which uses even more Norse words in daily speech than standard English does.

English is probably too much of a hybrid to ever neatly classify, but its Old Norse rót is clearly there among the tangle of Anglo-Saxon, French and Latin roots. The language of the Vikings may have become subdued over the centuries, but make no mistaka about it — from byrðr (birth) undtil we deyja (die) — Norse’s raw energy simmers under the surface of everything we say.

More Norse Words

We use Norse words every day without even realizing it.


English Old Norse Meaning
bark bǫrkr
bask baðask reflexive of baða, “to bathe”
billow bylgja
blunder blundra to shut one’s eyes; to stumble about blindly
call kalla to cry loudly
cast kasta to throw
choose kjósa
clip klippa to cut
crawl krafla to claw
gawk ga to heed
get geta
give gefa
glitter glitra
haggle haggen to chop
hit hitta to find
kindle kynda
race rás to move swiftly
raise reisa
rid rythja to clear land
run renna
scare skirra
scrape skrapa
snub snubba to curse
sprint spretta to jump up
stagger stakra to push
stain steina to paint
stammer stemma to hinder; to dam up
sway sveigja to bend; to give way
take taka
seem sœma to conform
shake skaka
skip skopa
thwart þver across
want vanta to lack
whirl hvirfla to go around
whisk viska to plait or braid


English Old Norse Meaning
axle öxull axis
bag baggin
ball bǫllr round object
band band rope
bulk bulki cargo
cake kaka
egg egg
glove lofi middle of the hand
knot knutr
keel kjölr
link hlenkr
loft lopt air, sky; upper room
mug mugge
plow, plough plogr
raft raptr log
scale (for weighing) skal bowl, drinking cup
scrap skrap
seat sæti
skirt skyrta shirt
want vondr rod
window vindauga lit. “wind-eye”


English Old Norse Meaning
aloft á + lopt on + loft; sky; heaven
ill illr bad
loose lauss
sly sloegr
scant skamt short; lacking
ugly uggligr dreadful
weak veikr


English Old Norse Meaning
freckles freknur
foot fótr
girth gjörð circumference
leg leggr
skin skinn animal hide


English Old Norse Meaning
fellow felagi
guest gestr
kid kið young goat
lad ladd young man
oaf alfr elf


English Old Norse Meaning
anger angr trouble, affliction
awe agi terror
happy happ good luck; fate
irk yrkja to work
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