Today, to be or to go berserk means to be frenzied, crazed, and the word and phrase carries a connotation of violence. The phrase to go berserk is relatively recent, only dating to the opening years of the twentieth century, but the noun and adjective is about a hundred years older than that, or at least it is in English usage.
The word comes from the Icelandic berserkr, meaning a powerful Norse warrior who displayed a wild and uncontrolled fury on the battlefield. In other words, a stereotypical Viking, or at least how Vikings appear in modern, popular imagination. The etymology of the Icelandic word is disputed, but it probably comes from bear + sark, a type of shirt or tunic. So a berserk or berserker was literally a bearskin-clad warrior.
Berserker makes its English appearance as early as 1814 in the works of Walter Scott. Scott uses the word in its original Icelandic sense of a “fierce warrior.”
In his 1831 novel The Pirate, Scott has one of his characters say:
“Ay, ay, fish of my heart,” replied the old woman, with a pathetic whine; “the Berserkars were champions who lived before the blessed days of Saint Olave, and who used to run like madmen on swords, and spears, and harpoons, and muskets, and snap them all into pieces, as a finner would go through a herring-net, and then, when the fury went off, they were as weak and unstable as water.”
A finner is a small whale. Since Saint Olaf died in 1028, the reference to muskets probably refers to crossbow bolts.
By the middle of the nineteenth century, berserk was being used as an adjective in English, meaning “violent or frenzied.”
One of the first writers to use the phrase to go berserk was Rudyard Kipling, who put the phrase in the mouth of a schoolboy in a short story “Regulus” that appeared in his collection A Diversity of Creatures, published in 1917:
“You went Berserk. I’ve read all about it in Hypatia.”
“What’s ‘going Berserk’?” Winston asked.
“Never you mind,” was the reply. “Now, don’t you feel awfully weak and seedy?”
“I am rather tired,” said Winton, sighing.
“You’ve gone Berserk and pretty soon you’ll go to sleep. But you’ll probably be liable to fits of it all your life,” Beetle concluded. ‘’Shouldn’t wonder if you murdered some one some day.’
From Winston’s question, it’s obvious that Kipling was aware that going berserk wasn’t a common phrase and there was a good chance his readers would not understand it. Whether to go berserk is something that Kipling heard schoolboys saying or if it is simply his imagining what schoolboys might say is anyone’s guess. But since then the phrase has entered into the everyday parlance of pretty much everyone.
“berserk | berserker, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition.
Copyright 1997-2013, by David Wilton