Fnah! (And other Icelandic gems)
English, it was once written, does not borrow from other languages – it mugs them in dark alleys and goes through their pockets. We tend to steal words wholesale rather than concoct our own, many of which are now perfectly everyday English terms: German gave us schadenfreude and zeitgeist, French gave us rendezvous, Latin gave us data, media, bacteria, crucifix, Greek gave us catharsis, hyperbole, anagnorisis* and naphtha. And so on. Yet there still exist bajillions of concepts which are readily identifiable – indeed, sometimes, universal – for which we don’t have words, and consequently have to take a long roundabout route to articulate.
There are of course ways to deal with this: The Meaning of Liff (co-authored by the late, lamented Douglas Adama Adams) put the names of towns to ubiquitous concepts like ‘standing in the kitchen wondering what you came in for’ (woking) and ‘that vaguely uncomfortable feeling you get from sitting on a seat still warm from someone else’s bottom’ (shoeburyness).
On a less silly note, communities coin words for these things as needed: the slang term frubbly is used by (mainly British, it seems) polyamorists as the opposite of jealous – being happy knowing that your partner is enjoying themselves with another partner. The plethora of words describing (gender)queer gender identities, and the attendant flocks of nonbinary third-person pronouns, are also relatively young additions to the language, introduced as needed by the people who needed them. (A tangent: knowing how English has shed grammar left right and centre, much as I am a fan of individualised pronouns, I doubt any of them will stick in the long term – my bet is that in 200-300 years they will have eclipsed our current set of singulars altogether, just as you displaced thou.)**
And thus are gaps in the language filled.
‘This concept for which we do not have a word’, though, has a flipside, which happens when you’re studying a foreign language and stumble across ‘this concept for which there is a word that I find completely bizarre’. There was a book written a few years back cataloguing some of these – The Meaning of Tingo, tingo being a word meaning, in some language, ‘to take objects away from someone’s house one by one until nothing is left’. I confess myself at a loss to imagine circumstances in which one could expect to need this word. Dharna is another good one; means ‘to starve yourself to death on your debtor’s doorstep as a form of protest’.
I bring all of this up because Old Icelandic, of which I am beginning to be thoroughly sick after eight weeks in close contact with it (I kid, I kid, but it’s difficult) has some corkers. First off, according to Prof Ashurst, it has no fewer than five words for a horse’s penis. (Why specifically a horse’s?) It has the verb fnasa, which means ‘to snort angrily’ or, more simply ‘to fnah!‘. (It is nothing to do with fnords although it sounds like it should do.) Áeggja ‘to egg on’ is another favourite.
But what sparked this whole thing was a phrase we ran across at the Old Icelandic reading group the other day. We’re reading the saga of Holy Jón, who does miracles. He (spoilers ahoy!) first pleads for the life of a guy called Gísl, then, when Gísl is condemned anyway, gives him a magic cape, in which he is hanged. Two days later he comes back, walks sunwise round the gallows three times, prays, and Gísl comes back to life (except for his legs from the knee down, which weren’t under the cape. I kid you not.)*** On the way back to the church a guy steps out of a loft, and tells Jón that
“Sigurðr ullstrengr, lendr maðr konungs, ok Auðun gestahöfðingi eru hér inni dauðasjúkir svá at þeir megu eigi óæpandi þola.”
Which translates into English as:
“Sigurd Wool-string [presumably there’s a story behind this name], a landed king’s-man, and Audun the steward [lit. chief-of-guests] are here within, deathly sick, so that they cannot endure without screaming.“
‘Without screaming’ there is one word, óæpandi. Yeah. The Vikings had a word for ‘unscreamingly’. Which says a lot about the Vikings, I feel.
Also, ‘Unscreamingly Endure’ would be a great name for a band.
* What do you mean, ‘anagnorisis’ isn’t an everyday word? I will have you know I use it ALL THE TIME.
** Not that that’s any kind of excuse for disrespecting actual here-and-now people’s requested pronouns, of course. We don’t go round killing people just because they would have died some point in the next few decades anyway.
*** We have yet to find out whether he was known from then on as Gísl Zombie-knees. It may sound bizarre, but then there’s a guy in Sigrgarðrs saga frækna called Jógrímr Shit-in-the-face. Viking nicknames are something else.