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January 05, 2003

Only two common words in English come from Icelandic

Interestingly, I discovered this from both the coffee table books I read this weekend while staying with my parents. The first, Iceland: The Warm Country of the North, by Sigurgeir Sigurjónsson and Torfi H. Tulinius, is a book of lovely pictures along with a little supportive text. It has the feel of the sort of book you buy at the airport when leaving your holiday destination, to remind you of how nice it all was. Just the thing to read instead of getting out of bed this morning.

The second book, lying around on the coffee table only because my parents would never dream of keeping books in the loo, was Schott's Original Miscellany, one of those books that pops up for the Christmas market and is suddenly found in bathrooms all across the land. An almanac for the internet age, this concentrates not on what you may need to know -- because everyone can now look those things up in a trice -- on stuff you'd never particularly realised was important. Everything's jumbled up, but it's a short book with a thorough index, so it doesn't really matter.

I didn't notice any facts that were clearly wrong, but plenty that were a bit dubious. For example, the list of notable Belgians included the Flemish painters (who we disqualify on the grounds that they predate Belgium), and a load of people we'd never heard of (who we disqualify on the grounds that they're insufficiently famous). And I work just off the Strand, so am skeptical of Schott's claim that it's properly known as just 'Strand'. All very well to tell you that a millihelen is the amount of beauty that will launch a ship, but the really interesting measurement is the milliantihelen -- a face that would sink a ship. [depressing aside: I just googled on that, and it seems I've used it online twice before, and nobody else has at all ever. As against many thousands of references for millihelen. So perhaps I'm the only person who thinks it's funny.] Worse are the Bowdlerisms (and Schott tells you the origin of that and many other words inspired by people). I have never, personally, seen the Internet abbreviation "RTBM", and the list of rhyming slang omits "Berkshire Hunt".

But Schott makes no claims to be exhaustive or authoritative, and there is plenty that's entertaining here. Far more than it's possible to lists, really. A list of famous horses, including Bucephalus, Rosinante, Silver, Trigger and Shadowfax. The recommended driving route from Lands End to John O'Groats. The list of London Thames crossings. Washing symbols, iceberg sizes, the plimsoll line, and, of course, a list of words which English has appropriated from each of many other languages, including geyser and saga.

I'd recommend this book, but you were probably given it for Christmas. Though if you're American, you can improve your stock at dinner parties by snapping up the UK version before US publication in July.

Posted by Alison at January 5, 2003 10:36 AM


To be tediously pedantic about it, "saga" is actually borrowed from Old Norse. Likewise, I can only think of one word borrowed from Finnish that's ordinary English usage: sauna.

Posted by: Ulrika O'Brien at January 10, 2003 11:44 PM

Oops. There's at least one other Finnish word that's worked its way into English: tundra.

Posted by: Ulrika O'Brien at May 27, 2003 03:39 AM

Sorry, but all of the Icelandic words that are presently used in English come from Old Norse.

There are about 900 common "Icelandic" words

in English today. More, Icelanders and Old English-speakers were understandable to eachother at one time.

Posted by: Jon at June 11, 2003 09:18 PM

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