Words disappear from the language all the time. The concepts they represent become less useful, or they are replaced by spiffier, newer terms and fade into obscurity and eventual disappearance from all but the largest of historical dictionaries. But occasionally these words are plucked from the fields of the slain and given new life. Such is the case with Valkyrie.
A Valkyrie, in Norse mythology, is a female warrior spirit who selects the most heroic of the battlefield dead and escorts them to eternal life in the warrior-paradise of Valhalla. The word comes from the Old Norse valr, or the “the dead, slain,” and kjósa, “to choose.” So a Valkyrie is literally a “chooser of the slain.”1
The word had a cognate in Old English, walkyrie, but in Anglo-Saxon England the word was used to denote an evil female goddess or demon, or even a sorceress or witch. It does not appear that the Scandinavian mythology of the female spirit who selected the best from among the slain warriors gained a hold in early medieval England, although the word did. This English cognate survives into Middle English, but it disappears from the language around 1400.2
Valkyrie was reintroduced into English in the mid-18th century as tales of Norse mythology began to be studied and translated into English. With this reintroduction, the Scandinavian sense of the female chooser of the slain and the association with Norse mythos came into English.
1Geir, Zoega T., valr, kjósa, A Concise Dictionary of Old Icelandic, Toronto: University of Toronto Press, reprint 2004, originally published 1910.
Copyright 1997-2017, by David Wilton