Wednesday, April 01, 2009

etymology of a bear shirt

Geek Alert!

I can't write about my angst every day. Time for some good ol' fashioned geekery.

Do you know what my favorite etymology of a word is? Yes, I have a favorite etymology of a word. I really like the word berserk, as in "I am going to go berserk on you if you don't stop talking during my class."

Berserk comes from the old Norse (which could be old Icelandic, depending on who you're talking to--they didn't have work visas for Warrior-poets) meaning, loosely, bare shirt, or bear shirt. Basically dudes would put on their bear skins and go nuts. And they banded together and people feared them. And it was good.

I encountered this word and its etymology in two places. First, watching Histeria!, a short-lived cartoon by the same people who produced Animaniacs during my teen years. The clip from the show involved the yelling kid (forget his name) literally wearing a bear shirt. And screaming. I think. Histeria is not online in any complete form, and has yet to be released on DVD. *exasperated nerd sigh*

I encountered the word again at UCD in my Beowulf and Icelandic Sagas senior seminar. Basically I took every class that this professor offered. She was phenomenal. I was hooked. I love me some Snorri Sturlson. Some Loki. Hrolf Kraki. Runes. Bear shirts. Bring it.

I also fell in love with another figure of speech during that same seminar. Kennings. In Norse or Icelandic myth and works such as Beowulf, the poets use these compound nouns to add a layer of complexity and beauty to the work. Kennings allow for alliteration within the meter of the poem, but also they can serve as metaphors themselves. (Did I just lose you there?) They're beautiful. Here are a few examples. Try not to go into a nerd fit. I will too.

battle-sweat = blood
mail-shirt = armor
horse of the sea = ship
bone-chamber = body
whale-road = ocean

Okay, I failed. I had a little happy nerd sigh about whale-road. Seriously, how can you learn things like that and not fall in love?

p.s. that Beowulf movie was crap.


  1. What struck me most about Beowulf and many of the works we covered in our Old English class was the proliferation of words for battle, sword, war, warrior, etc. They were just obsessed with the concept, and it defined their lives. And if they like an idea, they make up as many words as they possibly can to describe it (edit: see below).

    Also, Peter Baker has a good section on kennings in his Introduction to Old English (my ex-textbook, which I will never sell)...which, coincidentally, is available FREE online!

    The list of kennings he provides has some pretty AWESOME words. I've copied it below:
    bāncofa, bone-chamber, i.e. body.
    bānfæt, bone-container, i.e. body.
    bānhūs, bone-house, i.e. body.
    bānloca, locked bone-enclosure, i.e. body.
    brēosthord, breast-hoard, i.e. feeling, thought, character.
    frumgār, first spear, i.e. chieftain.
    hronrād, whale-road, i.e. sea.
    merestrǣt, sea-street, i.e. the way over the sea.
    nihthelm, night-helmet, i.e. cover of night.
    sāwoldrēor, soul-blood, i.e. life-blood.
    sundwudu, sea-wood, i.e. ship.
    swanrād, swan-road, i.e. sea.
    wordhord, word-hoard, i.e. capacity for speech.

    We had tons of fun with those in that class.

    I'm looking through that chapter online now and I found an example of the multiple-words-for-one-concept thing. Copied from the same chapter from Baker:
    "To give you an idea of how many poetic words may be available for a single concept, we end this section with a list of poetic words meaning 'king, lord' used in Beowulf and at least one other poem:
    bēagġyfa, masc. ring-giver.
    bealdor, masc. lord.
    brego, masc. lord, ruler.
    folcāgend, masc. possessor of the people.
    folccyning, masc. king of the people.
    folctoga, masc. leader of the people.
    frēa, masc. lord.
    frēadrihten, masc. lord-lord.
    frumgār, masc. first spear.
    goldġyfa, masc. gold-giver.
    goldwine, masc. gold-friend.
    gūðcyning, masc. war-king.
    herewīsa, masc. leader of an army.
    hildfruma, masc. battle-first.
    hlēo, masc. cover, shelter.
    lēodfruma, masc. first of a people.
    lēodġebyrġea, masc. protector of a people.
    mondryhten, masc. lord of men.
    rǣswa, masc. counselor.
    siġedryhten, masc. lord of victory.
    sincġifa, masc. treasure-giver.
    sinfrēa, masc. great lord.
    þenġel, masc. prince.
    þēodcyning, masc. people-king.
    þēoden, masc. chief, lord.
    wilġeofa, masc. joy-giver.
    wine, masc. friend.
    winedryhten, masc. friend-lord.
    wīsa, masc. guide.
    woroldcyning, masc. worldly king."


  2. Also, I love how you learned about etymology of "berserk" from a show called "Histeria." The connection is not lost on my happy little etymological soul.

  3. Yeah. Matter of fact, hysteria (crazy like a woman) is another one of my etymological faves.

    I better stop. My nerd is showing.

  4. I tend to have a favorite, pandemonium. Look it up.


  5. um....yeah that movie was crap.

    but you are funny.