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?
- 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…
- … 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.
- 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.