29. November 2022

10 charming Northern English words from Old Norse

Rune stones for fortune telling set out on a white background and spilling out of a hessian bag

Even though their influence in Northern England waned about a thousand years ago, the Vikings are still very much present in our distinctive culture and dialect. Here are 10 Northern English words from Old Norse that they left behind.

1. Bain

The first of my Northern English words from Old Norse is “bain” – commonly heard in Hull in East Yorkshire. Along with its synonym “bairn” (common in Scotland), it comes from the Old Norse word for child, “barn”, which is still used in Scandinavian countries like Sweden today. Once the word had hopped over to England, it transformed to “bearn” in Old English before taking on its current form.

2. Duck

This is a term of endearment meaning “dear” or “darling” which you will hear often in parts of the Midlands. My parents, who hail from Derbyshire, both call me “duck” or “ducky”. Don’t be tripped up though: this word has nothing to do with waterfowl!

Its origins aren’t entirely clear. Some sources say it comes from the Anglo-Saxon “ducas” (“duke”), indicating that the greeting is a show of respect. Other sources argue that it comes from “dokka”, the old Norse for “doll” (“dukke” in modern Danish).

3. Dales

In Yorkshire, one is very proud of the Dales. Windswept, wild and isolated — they offer up some of England’s most dramatic scenery. What are “dales” though? The phrase “up hill and down dale” gives the game away: it’s a Northern English word for valley. Whereas the latter word (taken from the French vallée) won the race in modern standard English, “dales” continues to be used across northern England.

It comes from the Old Norse word “dalr” — which is still evident in a number of northern European languages (“dal” — Luxembourgish, “Tal” — German, “dal” — Swedish).

4. Fell

Meaning a “hill”, this Northern English word stems from the Old Norse for mountain, “fell” or “fjall”. Its use in England tends to refer to barren exposed uplands or moor-covered mountains. The word (or variants of it) occurs in several other northern European languages, but what exactly it describes varies greatly. In Sweden, it describes a mountain upland above the treeline. In Norway, the word is less specific — referring to uplands which are too big to be hills.

If you spend time in the north of England, you’ll probably hear about fell-running at some point. This is a sport for the tough and the utterly masochistic and is a particularly gnarly sort of hill-running with added rain, muck and rocks. I’ve seen people coming down trails with huge gashes on their legs, spattered in mud and blood, but just carrying on. Them is proper Northerners, them is.

5. Beck

A beck ran through the village where I grew up. As children, we used to sit by the beck and throw stones and sticks into it. The beck was a small stream and the word comes from the Old Norse word “bekkr”…instantly recognisable to German speakers, who will know the word “Bach” – also meaning a brook or stream.

6. Howe

Around our neck of the woods, there are several “howes”. Nothing to do with any questions or confusion though — a howe is an ancient word for a hillock. It is believed to be another of the English words from Old Norse – this time originating from the word “haugr”, meaning hill, knoll, or mound.

Take a look at Duggleby Howe, close to where I grew up in the East Riding of Yorkshire and you will get a very clear idea of what a howe is.

The word “haug” still exists in Swedish and Norwegian and means a heap.

7. Ey up!

Whenever I go home, I always get a bit of a lump in my throat when I hear someone say “ey up!” for the first time. This informal, friendly greeting used in Yorkshire and in parts of the Midlands has uncertain origins but it is thought that it comes from the Old Norse expression for “watch out” or “beware” (se upp).

In Northern England, it has lost all connotations of warning and simply means “hello” or “hi there”.

8. Wapentake

A wapentake is an ancient division of land for local government purposes. The village where I grew up was part of a wapentake for hundreds of years. And, since English administrative divisions are so historically tangled and no one is really sure what the current status quo is, it might still be.

Wapentake comes from the Old Norse word “vápnatak”, which means the touching of weapons. This was a Scandinavian ceremony in which a newly chosen lord’s raised blade was met by those of his vassals. Those vassals thus undertook to rally to the lord if he ever needed their support. Later, it came to mean the brandishing of weapons to signal assent at political meetings within the respective area.

The use of the word wapentake in England is a sure sign that Danish influence was strong in the area. In other areas of England, the Anglo-Saxon word “hundred” was used instead.

9. C*nt

Yes, one of the most offensive words in the English language was a gift from the Vikings. In Old Norse, it was “kunta”.

Fun fact: before becoming a rather quaint shopping street, Grape Lane in York used to be called “Grapc*nt Lane”. Probably in reference to the prostitution which used to go on in the area — where those parts of the female body would and could be groped for a fee (grap = Old English for grope; “grapschen” in modern German means the same).

10. Gate

Any visitor to York will notice the city is full of “gates”. The most famous of these is arguably Stonegate, close to the Minster. Then there is Walmgate, Micklegate, Feasegate, Colliergate, Swinegate and the gloriously named “Whip-Ma-Whop-Ma-Gate”.

Why are there so many gates? Was there some kind of turnstile or enclosure there in times gone by? No — it simply means “street” and comes straight from “gata”, the Old Norse word for a street or thoroughfare. Walk around Stockholm in Sweden or even Vilnius in Lithuania and you will see this word still (Swedish: “gata”; Lithuanian: “gatve”).


Related articles:

Yorkshire words & phrases I still use after 19 years abroad

15 fabulous British slang words

Old-fashioned words and phrases in British English

The 10 funniest words in British English

Back to Britain – the joys and frustrations of returning to the mother ship


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