Of the words I’ve discussed on this site, the word Viking may have one of the more perplexing etymologies. It’s not a simple case of “origin unknown;” we have pretty good of evidence about where the word comes from, only that evidence doesn’t point to where one would expect. The word’s origin seems like it should be straightforward—a borrowing from the Old Norse vikingr—but that’s not the origin. And to make matters more complex, our modern use of the word is a nineteenth-century revival of a word that had long since passed out of our vocabulary.
The earliest known use of the word Viking is in the Epinal and Erfurt glossaries. These Latin-English glossaries date to the late seventh century, well before the Scandinavian raids on England began at the close of the eighth century.
The relevant entry in the Epinal glossary reads:
And the Erfurt reads:
(Note that in these manuscripts the letter < w > is literally a double < u >.)
So these early glosses equate the word wicingscead with piracy, presumably piracy in the Mediterranean, since it was used to gloss Latin texts. And indeed, the ninth-century Old English translation of Orosius’s History Against the Pagans uses wicing to refer to pirates in the Mediterranean. Ælfric’s Grammar, written at the end of the tenth century, glosses the Latin pirata with wicing oððe scegðman (Viking or schegthman), a scegð being a type of fast sailing ship used by the Scandinavians, so by this late date, well after the Norse raids on England had begun, the word was being associated with the Norsemen.
The word appears in poetry as well, but Old English poems are generally impossible to date accurately—unlike prose works, we don’t have a good idea of when most of the poems were written—not to mention that poets often used words quite loosely, so we can’t glean too much from poetic uses. For example, in what might at first seem quite odd, the Old English poem Exodus calls the Israelites sæwicingas, or sea-vikings, but the reference makes a bit more sense in the context of their crossing the Red Sea. The poem Widsith refers to a wicinga cynn (Viking-kin), or a race of people known as the wicings, but that poem uses many fanciful names for exotic peoples and the term here probably doesn’t refer to any actual group. One poem we can date, at least partially, is The Battle of Maldon, which has a terminus post quem (limit after which, i.e, the earliest date it could have been written) of 991, the date the battle took place. That poem uses wicing to refer to Scandinavian invaders of England, the horn-helmeted warriors that we have come to know and love. (Except actual Viking helmets didn’t have horns, but that’s not a linguistic issue.)
So what we have is that the Old English wicing originally meant simply your generic pirate. Then, as England came under attack by Scandinavian raiders in the ninth century, the term became particularly associated with that group.
What of the Old Norse word vikingr? The word starts appearing skaldic poetry in the late eleventh century, although it may date a century earlier in oral use. This is quite late compared to the Old English use, and it seems likely that the Scandinavians borrowed the name from the English.
And where does the Old English wicing come from? Wic refers to a town, dwelling place, or encampment, and a wicing was probably someone who set up a temporary camp, as piratical raiders were wont to do.
Finally, as to the modern English word Viking, the Old English wicing fell out of use with the Norman Conquest, and the word was revived and reborrowed from the Old Norse at the beginning of the nineteenth century—popular tales set in medieval times were quite popular during that era, witness the success of Walter Scott’s novels.
Fell, Christine, “Old English Wicing: A Question of Semantics,” Proceedings of the British Academy 72, 1986, 295–316.
Pheifer, J.D., Old English Glosses in the Epinal-Erfurt Glossary, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1974, 39 and 108.
“Viking, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989.
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton