Your RDA of Irony

Viking Etiquette and Household Hints

Let’s solve a mystery. How can a club be both a social organization and a weapon? It actually is a case of mistaken identity that began in the Middle Ages. Old English and Old Norse are both Germanic languages. In addition to this lingual similarity, the Vikings could always make themselves understood. When a horde of warriors is sacking and slaughtering, you can usually interpret its mood and intent. One particular form of Viking expression was the “klubba”, a blunt, heavy weapon.

When a Viking wielded his club, his British victims felt a clump. In Old English “clump” literally meant lump or mass, but the word had several uses. It could refer to an accumulation or cluster of objects; in that context, we still refer to “a clump of dirt” or “a clump of trees.” Unfortunately, a clump could also describe the mass of wood in the Viking arsenal, or the lumps it caused. Since club and clump had similar sounds and overlapping definitions, the words eventually became confused and interchangeable. Clump acquired a heavy, creepy context, while a club could be an innocuous collection.

England in the late 17th century was a wonderful time for debauchery, and the diction was as lax as the morals. When people, bound by a common interest or vice, gathered together these associations now were called clubs. Three centuries later we’re stuck with that mistake. If there had only more regard for proper English, your insurance agent would be a member of the Rotary Clump.

II.  Another Gift from the Vikings

With their effusive nature, the Vikings gave our language such words as slaughter, wreck, kidnap and-of course-club. In rare instances, however, our Viking vocabulary does not pertain to a crime. Consider the word window. It is from the Old Norse term vindauga and means “wind eye.”

But how did vindauga become our prevalent word for a scenic hole in a wall?

Of course, modern Scandinavians are renowned for furniture, but their Viking ancestors never showed any flair for interior design. There was no medieval Ikea. The Viking expressed his aesthetics by what he stole. In the ninth century the Norsemen so enjoyed looting England that they decided to seize the entire country. They nearly succeeded, overrunning Northern and Eastern England. But for King Alfred rallying the English in a last-ditch battle (and earning himself “the Great”), today Lundholm might be the capital of Anglemark.

The Vikings had been thwarted but they still controlled almost half of England. They could enjoy it and settle down. The Vikings acquired English wives–often over the bodies of English husbands–and began to assimilate. With varying degrees of sincerity, they converted to Christianity. (Odin and Thor had let them down.) This domestication was aided by the similarity between Norse and Old English.

For instance, the Angle-Saxon lived in a hus, walked through a dor, over a flor and into a rum. The Viking then stormed that huis, kicked in a dyrr, stomped the florr and into a ruim. Translation was hardly needed. When there were distinct differences in the vocabularies, the Norse sometimes adopted the English word. The Vikings found the English weall easy to breach but irresistible to say. However, the Norse were not so accommodating over what to call the scenic hole in the weall.

The Angle-Saxon called it an eyethurl, which means “eye hole.” Perhaps the Norse found it difficult to pronounce or lacking in poetry. They insisted on calling the disputed aperture a windauga, and bullies do have a certain power of persuasion. Eastern England called it that, and western England probably thought it wasn’t worth a fight.

  1. Michele says:

    Eugene,

    Did the Vikings have a word for etiquette? (Seems unlikely.)

    Michele

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