#Viking is not a verb!

The Gjermundbu Helmet

The Gjermundbu Helmet in Kulturhistorisk museum, Oslo. Photo (c) R. Dale, Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License

I have expanded this blog post in the light of comments received on Twitter, and to clarify a couple of issues that were not expressed particularly clearly when it began its life as a short rant.

I fear I neglect this blog too much. There is, and has been, so much going on in my life that I find making time to write on the blog a little difficult. For starters, I spent most of last year working on The World-Tree Project, an interactive, digital archive for the teaching and study of the Vikings. Check it out. There is some great material on there from weird and wacky expressions of Vikingness to brilliant teaching resources. And now I am working on Danelaw Saga: Bringing Vikings back to the East Midlands at the University of Nottingham. Follow the Centre for the Study of the Viking Age website to see what events we shall have this autumn and winter. There will be a full programme of public lectures, as well as events and the main exhibitions.

So, to the point of this short post/rantette. Every so often I come across someone earnestly explaining that ‘Viking’ is a verb in online discussions. Let’s get this straight: it is not a verb. I really don’t know why this assertion exercises me so much, but it does, so I shall repeat: Viking is not a verb.

For a more detailed discussion of what Viking means and how it is and was used head over to Norse and Viking Ramblings where Viqueen discusses the topic in more depth. And you can also read Prof. Judith Jesch’s piece on the meaning of ‘Viking’ in The Conversation. It’s all fascinating stuff, especially when considering how the modern meaning has evolved to suit our needs, and can influence our engagement with the past. Although the Oxford English dictionary does not include it yet, Viking is used as an ethnic identifier these days, as well as to refer to those warriors who sailed abroad in search of plunder. The meaning has moved on, and is not a reliable indicator of what it meant in the medieval period.

If Viking is not a verb, what is it then? The words from which our modern English word ‘Viking’ ultimately derives were Old Norse which is, broadly speaking, the language spoken in the Viking Age and medieval period in Scandinavia. See Viqueen’s blog for a brief discussion of how ‘Viking’ came to be an English word. Old Norse víking is a feminine noun that probably refers to a voyage abroad. Context suggests that it was probably violent but its actual meaning is not really known. Old Norse víkingr is a person that goes on one of these voyages. Að fara í víking means ‘to go on a viking voyage’. The word víking is still a noun in that expression, and the modern English word is also a noun according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

The next question for English speakers is likely to be “Could víking have derived from a verb?” because the ‘-ing’ suffix sounds awfully verb-like in English. Modern English commonly uses the ‘-ing’ suffix to form present participles and gerunds (verbal nouns) from verbs. Thus ‘to sail’ becomes ‘sailing’. However, this is not the case with Old Norse víking and víkingr. Instead, the ‘-ing’ suffix indicates that they belong to a particular group of people, a form that we occasionally see in modern English surnames and in examples like the Old English Wuffingas (the people descended from Wuffa). Vikings were people who belonged to a group named for whatever we think the etymology of ‘Vik-’ is. For a discussion of that etymology see Norse and Viking Ramblings, but, the one thing that Old Norse víking and víkingr cannot be is a verb. The word formation does not permit it. For it to be a verb in modern English, there would have to be an English word ‘to vike’. Similarly, there would have to be an equivalent of that in Old Norse, but none exists. If it did, then the expression að fara í víking would almost certainly not have come into being, with a simple verb (perhaps að víka) being used instead.

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About ruarigh

Historical consultant, archaeologist and peripatetic berserkerologist. My PhD was a cognitive analysis and textual archaeology of the Old Norse berserkr in popular culture from the early medieval period to the present day.
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