Raw Norse Power

viking helmetLook at this list of 60 words.

They are short, powerful, uncomplicated words, most of them just single syllables. They’re ideal for headlines. And they include some of the most basic key words in the English language — vital words like “get”, “take”, “want”, “they”, “same”, “call” and “die”.


Every one of these words comes down to us from Old Norse, from the Vikings who raided, traded and eventually settled in Britain over a period of three centuries, from roughly 800 to 1100AD.

Compared with the Romans, the Saxons and William the Conqueror’s Normans, they left us a tiny linguistic legacy. But size isn’t everything. Look at the headlines in any newspaper or magazine. Think of the titles of popular songs, or the slogans that prompt us to buy. These are words that get a reaction. This little corner of the English vocabulary has a power and influence out of all proportion to its size.

Nobody thinks “Ah, I’ll just chuck in a couple of blunt, Norse-derived words to make this headline more punchy.” Most people have no idea which of our familiar words come from this ancient Scandinavian source. Most couldn’t care less — and we’ve never seen a list like this in print before. But now you’re aware of this, try using them more. You’ll be surprised how often the right word for the job is lurking in this shortlist of 60 relics of the Viking age.


Just found some research — admittedly 25 years old and from Canada — that shows the percentage of Old Norse-derived words in a dictionary (1.4%) and in a sample edition of a daily newspaper (2.4%).

The equivalent figures for words derived from French were 28% (dictionary) and 15% (daily paper), while Latin-derived words hogged 28% of the dictionary, but took just 3% of the paper.

Doesn't prove anything, but certainly doesn't clash with the theory that our Viking words are disproportionately useful.

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