Language matters, and how a person uses language significantly affects their worldview and how they perceive people, objects, and concepts. It is no surprise, therefore, that there are a growing number of people who are dismayed by today’s liberal use of the word Viking to describe a great number of things that the word initially did not. Historians have fought pitched battles over the origins of the word, and many an unsuspecting Viking history fan has been on the receiving end of the ire of the word’s purists. Do you use the word Viking correctly? Yes, and no. Here I will attempt to clarify the origins of the word, its various uses across the ages, and the evolution of its modern incarnation, specifically in non-Scandinavian languages.
The Origins of the Word Viking
This much we know for sure: the word Viking is derived from Old Norse. While its origins are not well understood, and historians are divided over where precisely the word originated, we do know the word began not as a noun but as a verb. The Saga of Egill Skallagrimsson, one of the most famous of the Icelandic Sagas, offers us one of the most compelling examples of the word’s original use (keeping in mind that the Icelandic Sagas were written centuries after the Viking Age). In his opening passage, he describes a man named Ulfr as a man who, “lá hann í víkingu og herjaði,” which translates (roughly) to, “he was roving and fought.” In the context of the passage, the word víkingu, or viking, describes an activity – roving – rather than the man.
Later in the saga, the word is used in a completely different way:
“With bloody brand on-striding
Me bird of bane hath followed:
My hurtling spear hath sounded
In the swift Vikings’ charge.
Raged wrathfully our battle,
Ran fire o’er foemen’s rooftrees;
Sound sleepeth many a warrior
Slain in the city gate.”
Here the saga’s author uses the word as a noun to describe a group of people carrying out a specific action, which tells us the word may have also been used to describe the men whose profession it was to rove and fight. Jugglers juggle. Traders trade. Vikings viking.
Egill’s Saga may well be the last time the word was used in the medieval period. As the Viking Age came to a close, the profession of roving and fighting declined, and with it the use of the word Viking. Although modern Icelandic is the closest relative to Old Norse, Old Norse is considered a dead language. It evolved over the medieval period into the separate languages of Norwegian, Danish, Swedish, and Icelandic, and the word Viking did not make it into any of their lexicons. It disappeared almost entirely for many centuries until it experienced a revival led by 19th Century historians from Western Europe.
The Revival of the Word Viking
The Romantic movement of the early 19th Century (1800–1850) developed an intrinsic fascination with the medieval period. Part of that movement saw a rapidly growing interest in a little-known, poorly understood element of early medieval history: the Viking Age. Historians flocked to the field with keen interest, seeking to shed light on this “dark” age. It is 19th Century historians who first demarcated the Viking Age between 793 A.D., the attack on Lindisfarne, and 1066 A.D, the Norman invasion of England. They were the first to study the sagas, search for writings about the Viking invasions of Europe, and begin to form a coherent narrative of the Viking Age. Through their efforts, Western Civilization rediscovered the long lost history of an enigmatic people who had plagued the early kingdoms of Britain and France, and whose origins they traced to Scandinavia.
During the romantic period, there had not yet been any ship burial discoveries and no archeological digs of any significance, so the primary sources they used had to be tracked down across Europe, many of them hidden away in age-old university archives, cathedral libraries, and private collections owned by Europe’s ruling class. Misconceptions about the Vikings abound in this early period of research, many of which persist to today. At the same time, a new political force took hold in Western Europe, one that would be responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions of people in the following century: the concept of nationalism.
Beginning in the mid 19th century, the governments of Europe, both nascent democracies and established autocracies, sought to bend the narrative of history to suit their political aims and confirm their legitimacy. In France, for example, the official national story was that modern France was the product of the Carolingian empire, a holy Christian institution that helped to stabilize Western Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. In England, the official historical narrative began with the Anglo-Saxon kings, such as Alfred the Great, to emphasize that the English monarchy had a long and rich history, one who had fought back innumerable invasions with the help of God. It is within the context of nascent national fervor that the study of the Vikings took shape. Not surprisingly, historians painted the Vikings as an enemy who threatened civilization and had to be defeated. The triumph of Christendom over “the ravages of heathen men”, as written in the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, was regarded as a pivotal, divinely ordained achievement, exploited by the governments of Europe as a means to further prove the providence of their nations and to encourage national pride.
The fearsome enemy of Christendom, however, did not yet have a name. What then to call these invaders who attempted to thwart the Christian kingdoms of Europe? No one really knows where 19th-century historians, and later, society, picked up the word for use in non-Scandinavian languages. It may have been borrowed directly from the Scandinavians of the day, or perhaps taken directly from the Sagas of the Icelanders. Historian Eleanor Rosamund Barraclough explains in her book, Beyond the Northlands, that the first modern use in English of the word Viking was recorded in 1807. The word wasn’t reserved for the “men who roved”, but instead referred to the entire Norse world. It is, woefully, a product of the “us against them” mentality, and an unfortunate oversimplification and mischaracterization of a time and people we now know to have been far more complicated than previously acknowledged. From 1807 forward, the generalized use of the word dominated the histories and the arts of the 19th and 20th centuries and is by-and-large how most people use the word today.
So, Do You Use the Word Viking Correctly?
It all boils down to effective communication. Who is the audience? What is their level of knowledge in regards to the Viking Age? Making clear your intent for the word is critical, and nowhere is this done better than in a recent book titled The Age of the Vikings, by historian Anders Winroth, in which he takes the time to make clear how he intends to use the word to his audience:
“The word ‘Viking’ is rare in the Viking Age sources, but in modern times it has become a ubiquitous but ill-defined label. The original sense of the term is unclear, and there are many suggestions for etymological derivations. In this book, I reserve the term ‘Vikings’ for those northerners who in the early middle ages raided, plundered, and battled in Europe, in accordance with how the word is used in Medieval texts. Otherwise, I refer to the inhabitants of Scandinavia as Scandinavians. The language they spoke is called Old Norse, so I have sometimes used the term ‘Norsemen.’”
Anyone who uses the word should be careful to define how they intend to use it, and to make clear the differences between its various usages. I, for example, use the word Viking more interchangeably because my intended audience is those people who are beginning to explore their interest in the Viking Age and who may not yet understand how its modern use differs from the past. However, in writing more in-depth histories, I focus my use of the word on the “men who roved.”
As always, for further reading, check out my selected bibliography.