What’s in an ethnonym? Theories on the word `Viking’

Antler carving of a presumed Norseman found at Sigtuna

Antler carving of a presumed Norseman found at Sigtuna

I write this as Michaelmas Term approaches in Oxford and I have to organise, among other things, a lecture on Vikings in the British Isles. The last two years, I have done this, and I’m only not this time because I have too many others to cover; I may not be a Vikings expert but it’s one of those things where I think I know a bit. One of the things I used to know was what the word `Viking’ actually meant, but somehow each year I’ve taught this subject in Oxford I’ve come across another theory. When I hit the third one this spring I decided, enough: the blog has readers who know Vikings a lot better than I do, let’s put it to the blog. So, here are three theories. Have I missed some, or are there more? And which do you favour?

  1. The etymology is an Old Norse word ‘vikingr‘, derived from a verbal phrase: one ‘went a-viking’, ‘fara i viking‘. It’s thus a professional term rather than an ethnic one and if a Viking was at home farming presumably he stopped being a Viking. This is the one I thought I knew and for it I can quote Lars Lönnroth, “The Vikings in History and Legend”, in Peter Sawyer (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (Oxford 1997), pp. 225-249 at pp. 229-230, though he says nothing about the grammar, which I may well have wrong. Still, it’s odd to find that explanation there because…
  2. … theory 2 is in the same book, in the words of the editor, who derives ‘Viking’ from the area around the Olsofjord called Viken, and suggests that this is why only the English used the word `Viking’, as opposed to Northman, Lithsman, etc., because only they were meeting raiders from Viken.1 Now one might ask how that knowledge was getting across—derby colours on the weapons?—but we also know that Vikings often hung around and could somehow usually deal with locals even in places without Germanic languages, so it’s not impossible, and when someone like Peter Sawyer says something about Vikings I certainly don’t have the expertise to say if he’s wrong.
  3. And then theory three came up, which is from an Anglo-Saxon archæologist and thus might be less likely to be right, but I can’t rid myself of the feeling it makes sense: Timothy Tatton-Brown suggested in 1988 that `Viking’ could be a derivative of the same Indo-European root as gave the Anglo-Saxons wic and the Romans vicus and to the former, at least, meant a coastal trading place. By this reckoning it would be `wic-ing‘, inhabitant of the seaport.2 This obviously comes very fast out of the traders-not-raiders of that great and unnecessary debate, but to me, no linguist, it has etymological plausibility.

Am I wrong? Who’s right? I invite you to weigh in!


1. P. Sawyer, “The Age of the Vikings and Before” in idem (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of the Vikings (Oxford 1997), pp. 1-18 at p. 8.

2. Timothy Tatton-Brown, “The Anglo-Saxon Towns of Kent” in Della Hooke (ed.), Anglo-Saxon Settlements (Oxford 1988), pp. 213-232 at p. 217.

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22 responses to “What’s in an ethnonym? Theories on the word `Viking’

  1. from the “Reallexikon der Germanischen Altertumskunde” (RGA), 2nd edition, vol. 34, 2007, art. ‘Wikinger’, section by F. Herschend:
    ‘Viking is linked to concepts such as honour and oath (5; 6), and there is also an affinity between drengr and vikingr (DR 330). In these texts, no man behind a plough is a Viking, but sword-in-hand abroad, most are. ‘Viking’ however, is not an ethnic label, although, geogr. speaking, Viking seem to belong to S and W rather than E Scandinavia.’ (p. 56)
    ‘Owing to the possible link between the maritime element, wic, and wicing, the strategic maritime constructions in Danish waters Gudso vig, AE’lej, Stavns (-> Kanhave-Kanal) (7), make it fair to link ‘Viking’ to a ship-dependant warfare in S Scandinavia, and to consider wicing to be a term parallel to sae-dena, i. e. ‘sea-dane’ (Wids. v. 28).’ (p. 56)
    ‘We may therefore understand peopIe relating themselves to maritime landscape elements, whether Sea-Danes, sike dweilers, wave-guests or Vikings, as indeed that kind of warriors who spent most of their time on board their boats in the Danish waters, sheltering e. g. in bays, now and then visiting those who live on land with war.’ (p. 57)
    Unfortunately not that much on etymology, but it seems to combine your theories 1 & 3.

  2. I think wicing first turns up in an Anglo-Saxon gloss (Erfurt?) that predates the Viking Age, glossing piratas (Sorry, no reference book to hand).

  3. Only three meanings of the work ‘Viking’?
    There is another one here:- http://www.abc.se/~pa/publ/vik-oar.htm

    • That’s handy not least for giving references for the etymologies, many thanks, but I have to wonder about its proposed alternative. Not least, the idea of a shift at the oars measured in distance is difficult to credit. Firstly, how would such distances be measured over water? Secondly, the distance covered would differ substantially in effort according to conditions: 8 km on a flat sea in mild weather is one thing, 8 km against the wind in heavy seas in winter quite another! The Roskilde replica trials would suggest that this is the difference between maybe three hours’ rowing and most of a day’s! I wish the author provided clear citation for his distance figures, therefore, they seem most unlikely to be usable out of context. Whether that calls his whole idea into question, I don’t know, but it doesn’t encourage me.

      • I don’t think the meaning of the term veckosjö (or vika sjóvar) is up for debate. The meaning of the word is exactly what Daggfeldt says: it’s a relative measure which reflects different expectations of labour in different contexts, in ideal conditions (think of the sailing directions to Iceland and Greenland in various contexts, which estimate the length of the journey: clearly it varied enormously according to condition — some people never finished…).

        • But whether it has any such close connection with wícing, víking, víkingr is another matter entirely!

        • Oh, I don’t mean to dispute the translation, that’s well beyond my expertise and I’m happy to take the word of such as your good self on it; I would just like to know where he got his geographical quantifications of it from, as they seem quite unrealistic. He says, “The exact distance has varied with place and time. Upriver in the Kajana River in northern Finland a ‘veckosjoe’ was only 3,6 km. Along the coastline in the southern Baltic it was as an average of 8,3 km.” This doesn’t look like a ‘relative measure’ to me, or if it was, he’s doing his best to empiricise it! And, as I say, there’s the question of how it would be measured. Did the Vikings use knotted ropes or whatever? Or is it more likely that what we’re looking at here is hours at the oar, converted to distance by antiquarian maths and then repeated as such?

          • Somebody else may know better, but I think a veckosjö simply measures a reasonable stretch at the oars by a practised rower: the measurement is ‘relative’ because the distance you’d expect to cover in any stint would vary depending on where you were, regardless of other factors like weather etc.
            The main source is the Baltic itinerary between Blekinge and Estonia in King Valdemar’s Land Register (C13th), which refers to the number of ‘turns at the oars’ between the coastal stopping points. When you measure the distances it turns out that they vary along the route.

  4. Personally I’d recommend abandoning the use of the modern English word altogether as more trouble than it’s worth…
    The difficulty with most of the standard etymologies and explanations for ON fem víking and masc víkingr (and the related terms in Old English and Old Frisian) is that they tend to explain the possible origins of the masculine noun, from which the feminine then has to be derived, rather than vice versa (the philologically inclined might be diverted here by the use of that first Latin word, by the way). And one almost certainly has to look for a theory which first gives rise to the feminine form, from which the masculine would then be a natural derivative.
    This is really what recommends the idea that fem. víking originated from a verb vík(j)a, meaning something along the line of ‘shift, alternate, move back and forth, recede, turn away, give way, yield’. Daggfeldt, and more recently Eldar Heide, focus on the technicalities of rowing as the semantic sphere in which we should be poking for the specific sense. I don’t much fancy the idea myself (and I’m currently looking at textual evidence from c. 1100 that might support a different less technical explanation lurking in the same linguistic terrain), but it’s certainly not as strange as it might seem at first. After all, the terms Rhos / Ros / ar-Rus seem mostly likely to have derived from a form *roðR, derived from the Old Norse verb róa ‘row’. This (so the theory goes) would have referred to the act of rowing /and/ a sea expedition /and/ the members of such an expedition (i.e. men who row). It’s this hypothetical East Norse term that’s thought to have given rise to Finnish Rotsi and Estonian Rootsi (for Sweden), and in turn the name Rus, as well as the old name of the Swedish coastal region Roden, Roslagen (Rus-law): it’s hypothetical, but it works very elegantly.
    Sawyer’s explanation seems to me to be unsatisfactory, partly because the name Vík(in) may not be as old as the possibly rather early common origins of OE wícing and OFrisian wítzing (note that the Frisians had the word too, not just the English); and because in medieval texts people from Viken are called Víkverjar, or -verir rather than Víkingar; and because this explanation so clearly depends on a larger theory of an entirely different sort concerning the beginnings of the Viking age, and the importance of southern Norway and the Skaggerak. I suspect the political history of Norway in the C19th and early C20th has cast a long shadow over theories about who the first vikings were and where they came from.

  5. Maybe a slightly different question, but Christine Fell wrote two articles on the Old and Modern English words. (‘Modern English “Viking”’, Leeds Studies in English 18 (1987), 111-123; ‘Old English Wicing’, Proceedings of the British Academy 72 (1986), 295-316.)

    If I remember correctly, she says that our use of it in modern English comes from early translators of the sagas, who chose not to translate the word, and so it only has a very distant relationship with the Old English ‘wicing’ (which in any case was not used very often). So then, wherever the ON word came from, modern English usage can really only be traced back to the context of the sagas – where it means something like your first definition (I think – but not a saga expert!) – and what these early scholars saw in them. Of course, since then it’s gained a much stronger ethnic connotation in many people’s minds!

  6. Then there is the argument to use lower case “v” in order to indicate that viking is more a descriptor than a Name. See Richard Abels, “Alfred the Great, the micel hæðen here and the viking threat,” in Alfred the Great, ed. Timothy Reuter.

  7. The link to the article by Heide is here:
    Arkiv för nordisk filologi 120, 2005, page 41-54:
    Eldar Heide_ Víking – ’rower shifting’? An etymological contribution
    1http://eldar-heide.net/Publikasjonar%20til%20heimesida/viking%20rowshift.pdf
    (In case you want it on your list of literature and do not have the precise information)

    In it he lists 6 (six) different etymological explanations and discuss them.

    Another idea: It might be interesting to supplement the discussion in front of the students with an overview of the other “epithets” which were used – Northmannir, Danes etc.

    The whole question was definitely early on tinged with nationalistic sub-currents, since the Norwegians in the 19th and 20th century were pursuing a way of claiming their hereditary identity as the “vikings per se” – thus e.g. seriously claiming the Normans in Normandy were in fact from Norway and not from Denmark! (Although Rouen was known as the “city of Danes” by e.g. Widukind) which might very well be correct in terms of geographical origin). Whether it from an (emic) point of view of a “viking” 913 made sense is quite another matter!!
    The problem being also that apart from the odd runic stone we have no idea of how they thought of themselves.

    A quick search in the Runic Database here in Denmark presents us with four stones… http://runer.ku.dk/Search.aspx – of these one is nonsense, one is slightly incomprehensible, while two use the word as in “fara i viking”.
    1) Gårdstungasten:
    English translation:
    Tosti(?) and Gunnarr … these stones in memory of Kn…/Gn… …-bjǫrn, their partners. These “drengar” were widely renowned on viking raids.
    Transskription:
    Tōsti(?) ok Gunnarr … stēna þessi æftiR KN-/Gn-… [ok] …biorn, fēlaga sīn[a]. ÞēR dræng[i]aR vaRu v[iða] [ūn]ēsiR ī vīkingu.

    2) Västra Strö sten:
    English translation:
    Faðir had these runes cut in memory of Ǫzurr, his brother, who died in the north on a viking raid.
    Transskription:
    FaðiR lēt hǫggva rūnaR þessi øftiR Assur, brōður sinn, es nor[ðr] varð dǿðr ī vīkingu.

    Maybe Sawyer gives these quotes… I cannot remember and have mislaid him. There are also a number of Swedish stones…

  8. JJ, you did say ‘weigh in’. I’m more than a bit disappointed that no one has yet referred to my extenisve discussion of both words in Ships and Men in the Late Viking Age (2001), some of it also substantially the same in the Christine Fell Festschrift. I don’t want to go over it all here, since I don’t believe in research by internet, I’d rather people considered proper publications first. But in short, my approach is contextual rather than etymological, ethnic, or nautical. (Ontogeny is not phylogeny – that applies to etymology too!). Every single runic inscription and skaldic poem from the period I am looking at is included in my discussion. Happy reading. Anyone who is not familiar with my publications might with to have a look at http://www.nottingham.ac.uk/english/people/judith.jesch.
    For the saga evidence, there is a monograph by Jana Krüger (2008), though it is not comprehensive in its coverage of sagas. It’s in German, but I reviewed it in English in Studia Anthroponymica Scandinavica.
    I wouldn’t rely too much on the views of historians in popular books….

    • Oops sorry Viqueen: was just coming back with some references — including to you…

      Wanted to point out first that Tatton-Brown was far from the first to see a connnection with wic: this originated (I think) with Elis Wadstein, Le mot viking: anglo-saxon wicing, frison wising, etc. (1925).

      Apart from Judith Jesch’s and Christiine Fell’s writings on the subject (referred to above), there are more or less recent discussions in the following, all but the first of which are available online:

      R. Coates, ‘New light from old wicks: the progeny of Latin vícus’, Nomina 22 (1999), 74–114
      Tette Hofstra, ‘Changing views on Vikings’, TijdSchrift voor Skandinavistiek 24 (2003), 147-60
      Eldar Heide, ‘Víking – ‘rower shifting’? An etymological contribution’, Arkiv för nordisk filologi 120, (2005) 41-54 [linked above]
      Eldar Heide, ‘Viking, week, and Widsith. a reply to Harald Bjorvand’, Arkiv för nordisk filologi 123 (2005), 23–8

      Hofstra and Heide supply various further definitions. There’s also an old abandoned one (alongside the impossible derivation from a verb related to víg ‘battle’) which made vikings the catchers of seals – because ‘wikan’ is a word for seal in the Swedish dialect of Ruhnu in the Gulf of Riga…

    • Thankyou, Viqueen, you were one of the people I was hoping to provoke, though I should probably have been aware that you’d covered it in detail already, sorry about that! And obviously, if we all relied on Peter Sawyer’s views the field would have been far the poorer for at least forty years now, but he’s usually a good place to start. Thanks for the suggestions, I shall follow up as much as I can.

  9. There is of course the general problem that the word probably did not actually have a stable meaning anyway – it is little used, and as far as I can see only attested by non-Vikings (insofar as that means anything…). It’s a label, and the origins of it are only half the problem (or less than that if the origins predate the use by a long period).

    • That’s what Viqueen meant about ontogeny v’s phylogeny! You should look at her work if you want to know about the use of the terms víking and víkingr in the available Old Norse poetic and runic sources from the tenth and eleventh centuries. (And given the impressive geographical and chronological range in the use of the term, in Old English glossaries, poetry, homilies and chronicles, Old Norse runic inscriptions and verse, and (late) Frisian law codes, one might want to be careful about saying it was little used — or indeed not used by ‘vikings’).

  10. There is a new book about the way in which the story of the “vikings” was nationalised in the 19th century.. in Swedish, but some of you might be able to read it. I have not read it yet, so this is not a recommendation

    http://webappl.web.sh.se/p3/ext/custom.nsf/news?openagent&key=ny_bok_om_vikingahistoria_och_nationalism_1347006565537

  11. Pingback: Abraham Adcock · History Carnival 114

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