33 Crass and Creative Norse Nicknames

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Getty Images

Before surnames were a well-established way of telling one Olaf or Astrid from another, identifying nicknames were far more prevalent. Historical figures had their share of quirky epithets—from Albert the Peculiar to Zeno the Hermit—but the Norse Vikings seem to have had them beat when it comes to comical range and sheer absurdity.

Paul Peterson, now a teaching fellow in Scandinavian and German at Augustana College in Illinois, dedicated his advanced studies to Norse nicknames, completing a masters thesis and doctoral dissertation [PDF] at the University of Minnesota on the subject. He writes in the abstract, “The quantity of nicknames in Old Norse literature is incomparably rich, and recurring nicknames provide a tool for understanding saga transmission, cultural history, slang, and etymology.” Plus, some of them are really silly.

Many—although not all—of the nicknames he cites through the text are pulled from a compendium of Icelandic settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries called Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements) and fall into the following rough categories: “those describing physical features, mental characteristics, and one’s deeds or habits (good or bad).” Often, they're not exactly flattering.

Monarchical nicknames—both legendary and historical—are especially descriptive, and often survive in the Norse canon along with an explanation for the epithet that helps to contextualize the king. These include:

1. Óttarr the Vendel Crow: So given because after he was slain in a battle at Vendill, his body was eaten by crows.

2. Hálfdan the Generous and the Stingy with Food: This contradictory nickname is rooted in a surviving anecdote that claims the king paid his men well, but also starved them.

3. Walking-Hrólfr: A royal count, Hrólfr was said to be given this nickname because he was too large for any horses to carry him, and thus he walked everywhere.

4. Magnús Barefoot or Barelegged: King Magnus traveled west to the British Isles, where he and his men adopted the kilt styles worn there, and brought the fashion back to Norway. The sartorial choice was especially noteworthy after a blow to his bare leg in battle ultimately cost him his life.

5. Haraldr War Tooth: There is some discrepancy in the legends about Haraldr—whether he earned his epithet through naturally prominent (and yellow) teeth or whether he was bestowed with a mystical immunity that included re-growing a pair of teeth that were knocked out on his wedding night.

Sometimes, an explanation of the nicknames of non-royal Vikings, however obtuse, was also included in the text. Such as:

6. Billy Goat Bjǫrn: So-called because he dreamed of a “rock-dweller” and awoke to find an extra male goat amongst his herd, which quickly multiplied and made Bjorn wealthy.

7. Ǫlvir the Friend of Children: There was a low bar for earning this epithet in Medieval Iceland. Ǫlvir was a friend of children because, according to Landnámabók, “He did not allow himself to catch children on spears, as was then customary among Vikings.”

8. Þórir Leather Neck: He earned what was likely a mocking nickname after attempting to fashion armor with cheaper cowhide.

9. Ragnarr Hairy Breeches: The explanation given for this nickname—that Ragnarr was wearing his hairy breeches when he slew a serpent to win his wife’s hand in marriage—makes sense as a momentous occasion worth commemorating, but it doesn’t explain why he was wearing the fur pants to begin with.

10. Þóra Hart of the Castle: Like many women’s nicknames, this is a reference to beauty. Þóra was said to be so beautiful that she stood out from other women as a hart (or stag) stands out from other animals.

11. Þorbjǫrg Coal Brow: Her nickname is a reference to her black hair and eyebrows—but it is not intended as a compliment among Vikings.

12. Hallgerðr Long Pants: The wife of a legendary hero, Hallgerðr’s nickname refers to her abnormal height and thus, presumably, the long pants she would have to wear.

Many nicknames survive without any explanation (though many are obvious enough that you could probably guess why the epithet was given). A surprising number are openly insulting and include crude sexual allusions or “potty humor”:

13. Kolbeinn Butter Penis

14. Eysteinn Foul-Fart

15. Herjólfr Shriveled Testicle

16. Ásný Ship-Chest (or: Ásný The Busty)

17. Þórir Billy Goat’s Thigh

18. Skagi the Ruler of S**t

19. Ásgeirr the Terror of the Norwegians

20. Bǫðvarrthe Little Bear

21. Auðr the Deep-Minded

22. Finni the Dream Interpreter

23. Olaf the Witch-Breaker

24. Vemund the Word-Master

25. Hlif the Castrator of Horses

26. Astrid the Wisdom-Slope

27. Ófeigr the Grimacer

28. Tjǫrvi the Ridiculer

29. Vékell the Shape-Shifting

30. Þorfinnr the Splitter of Skulls

31. Bjarni the Tall Man with a House

32. Hjǫrleifr the Amorous

33. Þorgeirr the Frantic

[h/t Medievalists.net]

Are There Any Synonyms for the Word Synonym?

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iStock.com/netopaek

Some of the most frequently used words in the English language must have been created by someone with a devilish sense of humor. The word monosyllabic isn’t one syllable, long is only four letters, lisp is difficult to pronounce if you have a lisp, and synonym doesn’t have any synonyms. Or does it?

The answer to that last question is a bit complicated. Thesaurus.com lists metonym as a synonym of synonym, but their meanings aren’t exactly the same. The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar defines synonym as “a word or phrase that means the same, or almost the same, as another in the same language.” Metonym, on the other hand, is defined as “a word or expression which is used as a substitute for another word or expression with which it is in a close semantic relationship.” For example, the crown can be used to refer to the queen, and Washington sometimes refers to the U.S. government.

There is another possibility, though: poecilonym. This is probably the closest synonym of synonym, although it’s antiquated and rarely used. David Grambs, a lexicographer for American Heritage and Random House, included it in his 1997 book The Endangered English Dictionary: Bodacious Words Your Dictionary Forgot. The word is pronounced PEE-si-lo-nim, according to Grambs, who pays homage to its obscurity. “Maybe we could all use a few spanking old poecilonyms,” Grambs writes. “Poecilonym? It's an old synonym for synonym that you'll find in these pages. But many words in this dictionary have no real counterparts in today's English.”

Allen’s Synonyms and Antonyms from 1920 also lists poecilonym and another word—polyonym—as synonyms of synonym. However, it says both of these terms are rare. So technically, there are two other words that have the same meaning as synonym, but it’s a tough position to argue when those words are no longer in modern usage.

To add another dimension to this question, some have argued that there are no true synonyms at all, as every single word carries a different shade of meaning. “Even though the meanings of two words may be the same or nearly the same, they almost never are the same in connotation, distribution, and frequency,” according to Dictionary.com. “House and home may be offered as synonyms for each other, but we all know that they are not the same.”

So if you want to start using poecilonym or polyonym in place of synonym, you’d technically be correct—but don’t expect anyone else to know what you’re talking about.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

15 Long-Lost Words To Revive This Christmas

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iStock.com/duncan1890

Nog. Tidings. Wassail. Every time Christmas rolls around it brings with it its own vocabulary of words you barely hear the rest of the year. But while words derived from ancient English ales (like the nog in eggnog) and Middle English greetings (wassail is thought to derive from a Germanic phrase meaning “good health!”) are one thing, some choice festive words haven’t stood the test of time, and are basically unknown outside of the dustiest corners of the dictionary.

Here are 15 long-lost and long-forgotten words to get you through the holiday season.

1. Ninguid

Derived from Latin, a landscape that is ninguid is snow-covered. And if that’s what your walk to work looks like over the festive period, you might also need to know that to meggle is to trudge laboriously through snow. (A peck-of-apples, meanwhile, is a fall on ice.)

2. Crump

That crunching sound you make walking on partially frozen snow is called crumping.

3. Hiemate

Hibernate is sleeping throughout the entire winter; hiemate is to spend winter somewhere.

4. Yuleshard

As another word for the festive period, Yule comes via Old English from jol, an ancient Scandinavian word for a series of end-of-year festivities. A yuleshard—also called a yule-jade (jade being an insult once upon a time)—is someone who leaves a lot of work still to be done on Christmas Eve night.

5. Yule-Hole

And the yule-hole is the (usually makeshift) hole you need to move your belt to after you’ve eaten a massive meal.

6. Belly-Cheer

Dating from the 1500s, belly-cheer or belly-timber is a brilliantly evocative word for fine food or gluttonous eating.

7. Doniferous

If you’re doniferous then you’re carrying a present. The act of offering a present is called oblation, which originally was (and, in some contexts, still is) a religious term referring specifically to the presentation of money or donation of goods to the church. But since the 15th century it’s been used more loosely to refer to the action of offering or presenting any gift or donation, or, in particular, a gratuity.

8. Pourboire

Speaking of gratuities, a tip or donation of cash intended to be spent on drink is a pourboire—French, literally, for “for drink.” Money given in lieu of a gift, meanwhile, has been known as present-silver since the 1500s.

9. Toe-Cover

A cheap and totally useless present? In 1940s slang, that was a toe-cover.

10. Xenium

A gift given to a houseguest, or a gift given by a guest to their host, is called a xenium.

11. Scurryfunge

Probably distantly related to words like scour or scourge, scurryfunge first appeared in the late 18th century, with meanings of “to lash” or, depending on region, “to scour.” By the mid-1900s, however, things had changed: perhaps in allusion to scrubbing or working hard enough to abrade a surface, scurryfunge came to mean “to hastily tidy a house” before unexpected company arrive.

12. Quaaltagh

Quaaltagh was actually borrowed into English in the 1800s from Manx, the Celtic-origin language spoken on the Isle of Man—a tiny island located halfway between Britain and Ireland in the Irish Sea. It was on the Isle of Man that festive tradition dictates that the identity of the first person you see (or the first to enter your house) on Christmas or New Year morning will have some bearing on the events of the year to come. And in Manx culture, the person you meet on that early-morning encounter is called the quaaltagh.

13. Lucky-Bird

We’re more likely to call them a first-footer these days, but according to old Yorkshire folklore the first person across the threshold of your home on New Year’s morning is the lucky-bird. And just like the quaaltagh, tradition dictates that the identity of the lucky-bird has an important bearing on the success of the year to come: Men are the most fortuitous lucky-birds; depending on region, either dark-haired or light-haired men might be favored (but dark-haired is more common). Other regional variations claimed the man had to be a bachelor, had to bring a gift of coal (though by the 1880s whisky was increasingly popular), and/or had to have a high arch on the foot. People with a suitable combination for their region could “become almost professional,” according to the Leeds Mercury Weekly Supplement.

14. Apolausticism

Derived from the Greek word for “to enjoy,” apolausticism is a long-lost 19th-century word for a total devotion to enjoying yourself.

15. Crapulence

Once all the festive dust and New Year confetti has settled, here’s a word for the morning after the night before: crapulence, as the Oxford English Dictionary puts it, is an 18th-century word for “sickness or indisposition resulting from excess in drinking or eating.”

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