Yorkshire Dialect Words of Old Norse Origin


by Barrie Markham Rhodes, The Yorkshire Dialect Society

The influence of Viking language on the regional speech varieties of northern  and eastern England is well documented. It is not surprising, therefore, that numerous ‘Viking’ lexical items are to be found in the traditional dialects of places such as Yorkshire and this page presents many of these. In doing so, a number of qualifying comments need to be made :

Firstly, the Old Norse and Old English spoken languages were closely related, sharing the same Germanic origin. Furthermore, Old Norse and Old English became ‘pidginised’ (amalgamated and simplified) in ‘Scandinavian’ England. This means that we cannot always be certain that a particular lexical item came into regional speech via Old Norse or via Old English. The word beck is a case in point: did it arrive from the Old Norse bekkr or the Old English cognate bæce, both of which undoubtedly had the same Germanic origin, with the cognate bach being found in German, and beek in Dutch, for instance. As a general rule of thumb, if the variation appears to be confined mainly to use in ‘Scandinavian’ England, it may be safe to argue that it is the Old Norse form that has been preserved.

The second qualification is that not all words of Scandinavian origin came into English regional speech during the generally-accepted Viking Age. Some were later ‘borrowings’, so it may not always be safe to state that a particular word was ‘Viking’.

Thirdly, the boundaries between ‘dialect’ and ‘standard language’ are not all that clear. This is an issue which even the experts have problems with. In a sense, all language is ‘dialect’ and Standard English is simply a particular regional dialect that acquired prestige because of its use in the region where the royal court, the earliest universities and the centre of power and administration lay. Old Norse influenced all  varieties of English (though its effects on the regional dialects of ‘Scandinavian’ England were obviously deeper and more extensive. This means that some supposedly ‘dialect’ words can be found to have close cognates or associations with words in the standard language or other regional dialects. In some instances, words that once belonged to another regional dialect have also been taken into Standard English usage.

This leads on to the fourth point. Though this presentation specifies ‘Yorkshire dialects’, this is not to say that some (indeed, many) of the lexical items in the list will not also be found in the traditional dialects of adjacent or nearby counties. In particular, Lancashire, Lincolnshire, the north Midlands and the Lake District, which share a Scandinavian heritage with Yorkshire, will have many identical – or closely similar – words in their dialects. Speech is a human attribute and is, therefore, portable. Dialectologists’ attempts to map words and construct word boundaries (isoglosses) are always beset with problems of where to start and end, where to differentiate between ‘dialect’ and ‘language’ and so forth. Word usage changes only gradually over space, over zones of transition, not at defined boundary lines on the map. Yorkshire has simply been chosen as a representative case study (mainly because it is where I live and because its West Riding dialect is the one I grew up with), recognising that it does not have exclusive claim on all the words presented here. Indeed, for convenience, Yorkshire itself is generally regarded as itself having three major dialect areas, roughly equating with the former Ridings. In the list given here are words from all three Ridings. Though some are shared, there are many which are particularly identified with one or other of the Ridings.

Fifthly and finally, some of the entries in the word list are speculative and have been included because there appears to be some evidence of a Scandinavian or Icelandic linguistic association. These are indicated by a ? in the Old Norse column, with accompanying comment on potential linguistic evidence and possible shared etymologies. I would welcome users’ observations on such entries and any additional evidence they might be able to provide.

With these qualifications stated, it is hoped that visitors to The Viking Network Web site will find much in this particular presentation to interest them and stimulate their own thinking about language in general, about dialect words in particular, and about the remarkable impact the Vikings had on our communicative behaviour.

Acknowledgement: The word list definitions draw heavily on the work of Dr. Arnold Kellett of The Yorkshire Dialect Society, in particular his The Yorkshire Dictionary of Dialect, Tradition and Folklore (1994).

Yorkshire Dialect Words of Old Norse Origin

dialect word
Generally accepted meaning Old Norse
source word
Notes and comments
agate on the way (as in “..be/get on your way” = “Get agate!”) gata See also gate, below.
arse posterior, bottom, back, behind, buttocks; back of a cart or wagon; back of something (“arse end of…”) ars Has now passed into vernacular English usage.
arval as in “arval bread” = a kind of cake eaten at funerals. erfil
bait to feed, to offer food; a packed meal; contents of a lunchbox. beit
ban to curse, to swear. banna
band string, rope, yarn, cord. band
barf hill, especially one which is long and low. bjarg
barn child (especially a young child, infant) barn Same as bairn, which comes from the Old English bearn. bairn is used as an alternative in some parts of Yorkshire, the other northern counties and Scotland.
beck A stream, a brook. bekkr The Old English cognate bæce may also be the source of the dialect word, though the fact that beck is generally confined to the Danelaw and the north-west as a landscape term suggests an Old Norse etymology.
bensel, bensil to beat, to thrash benzla
biggerstang scaffold pole ? cf Swedish bygga (= build, construct, construction) and ON stangar (= pole). See also stang
blaeberry bilberry blabær ON bla = blue
blake sallow, yellow (usually in relation to someone’s complexion) bleikr
bleck thick and dirty grease (as on axles and bearings) blek
boose division or partition in a cowshed bas Probably related to the Standard English box (cf, e.g., loose box, horse box, etc)
brig, brigg bridge briggja May also occur in landscape terminology, with the meaning rocky headland, promontory, as in Filey Brigg.
cahr to settle down, to become quiet ? May be a corruption of the Standard English cower, but also cf Icelandic kyrr.
cam bank, slope, ridge kambr May be associated with the Standard English camber (slope; rounded edge [especially of a road] ).
carr marshy woodland or shrubland kjarr Often found only as an element in place names or the names of landscape features (e.g. Hunslet Carr, etc).
clap to apply quickly, put down quickly or slap with the hand (“She clapped it down on’t table”). klappa Probably associated with the Standard English clap = to applaud by slapping the hands together rhythmically
cleg horse fly kleggi
cletch family of young (e.g. children or chickens) klegja May be related to the Standard English clutch, as in “clutch of eggs”.
collop, scollop, scallop thick slice or lump of food, usually ham, bacon or potatoes ? cf Swedish kalops
crake crow kraka
dale valley dalur May be associated with the Standard English dell.
dee (to) to die deyja May simply be a regional vowel change of the Standard English word die.
deg to sprinkle (especially water) doegva
ding to hit heavily, knock, throw down violently ? cf Danish dænge
doit to become forgetful or confused; to allow things to slip from memory; to be failing (with age) ? cf Icelandic detta, duttum, dottin, etc., (= to fall down).
dollop lump of something (usually soft, like mashed potato) ? cf Norwegian dialect dolp
durn door-post ? cf Norwegian dyrn
ettle to intend, to aim to ætla
-ey island, or dry area in a marshy place ey Now generally found only as an element in place names, such as Pudsey, Wibsey, etc.
fell hill, mountain slope (especially rough moorland) fjall
femmer slight, light, weak fimmer
flags, flagstones flat, thin, rectangular stones used for paving, roofing or flooring flaga
flaik, fleek, fleak hurdles, railings, fence, or open wooden storage rack fleki
flit to move house flytja A more generalised meaning is found in Standard English, where “to flit about” is to move quickly from one place to another. cf also German fledermaus (an archaic English name for a bat was flittermouse).
foss, force waterfalls, rapids (e.g. Thornton Force, Janet’s Foss, etc) fors Found usually in the names of landscape features only.
gain near (“gain hand”), quick gegn
garth small grass enclosure adjacent to a house garðr Obviously related to the Standard English garden, French jardin, German garten, etc.
gat got geta Probably simply a regional vowel change of the English get
gate way, street gata Found mainly in street names in towns/cities of the Danelaw, e.g. Kirkgate, Eastgate, Briggate, etc.
gaum, gawm heed (“Ee taks noa gawm” = “He takes no heed, pays no attention”); common sense (gormless = lacking in sense) gaumr
gawp to stare, to gape open-mouthed gapa
gill, ghyll small narrow valley or ravine gjel Found mainly in the names of landscape features, e.g., Trollers Ghyll, Ramsgill, etc.
gilt immature female pig gyltr
gimmer immature female sheep (before it first gives birth to lambs) gymbr
glocken to start to thaw; when snow begins to clear away ? cf Icelandic glöggur, etc (= to make clear, become clear).
gloppened, glottened astonished, surprised, flabbergasted glupna
gowk cuckoo gaukr
graave to dig ? cf Swedish gräva and other Scandinavian cognates
grain fork in the branches of a tree; where a stream branches; prong of an eating fork grein
greet to weep, to cry continuously ? cf Swedish gråta and other Scandinavian cognates.
groop the slurry drain in a cowshed; open sewer grop
Note: Initial /h/ is not normally pronounced in the Yorkshire dialects
hagg part of an area of woodland, especially on a sloping bank hagi
handsel money given to someone to seal a bargain or bind a contract handsala
happen perhaps, maybe, by chance, as in “Happen I’ll go home today”. happ
haver oats (e.g., as in havercake = oatcake) hafre No doubt this is the root of the English word haversack = a small canvas backpack or rucksack, part of a soldier’s equipment and probably originally used for carrying a ration of oatmeal.
hey up look out, be careful ? Origin uncertain, but cf Swedish sey upp ! More likely to be used now as a form of greeting in Yorkshire, rather than as a warning.
higg temper, annoyance, to take offence at something hoggva (?)
ice-shoggles icicles isjukel Appears to be related to Standard English icicles
ing(s), eng(s) meadow(s), especially water meadow near a river eng Now usually found only as an element in place names, such as Fairburn Ings, Bean Ings, etc.
jannock fair, right, just (justice) jamn
keck (descriptive of hollow-stemmed plants) kjot
keld, kell spring or well kelda Usually found as an element in the name of a landscape feature
ket carrion; raw meat or flesh; offal; rubbish ? cf Icelandic ket/kjöt, Swedish kött and other Scandinavian cognates for meat.
ketty nasty, rancid See ket above.
kilp pot hook, pot handle kilpr
kytel working coat of coarse material ? cf Norwegian kittel
kist large box, chest or trunk kista Related to the Standard English chest
kittle to tickle kitla
kittlin kitten kettling
laik, leck to play leika The verb laikin’ is also used in some parts of Yorkshire for days off work or having no work to do (“He’s laikin’ today” = “He’s not working today”).Note: As in most Yorkshire dialect words, the final /g/ is not sounded.
laithe, leeath barn, agricultural building hlatha Frequently found as an element in place names, such as Newlaithes
lam to strike hard, to throw hard lemja
lat late latr May be simply a vowel change from the Standard English late, but the close phonetic similarity with the Old Norse word suggests otherwise.
leck to sprinkle with water ? cf Icelandic lek, leka, lak (= to leak). Probably related to the Standard English leak/toleak.
lig, ligg to lie down, to leave resting in place liggja This may be the root of the term for a builder’s or plasterer’s ligger board, where mortar or plaster is left in place until needed
ling heather lyng
lisk groin, where legs join ? cf Norwegian lyske.
loose, lowse to exit or leave from somewhere; to finish for the day and go home (as from work or school). ? cf Icelandic laus, laust, etc. (= loose, free, vacant). In Yorkshire, to be found in expressions such as “Football’s looseing” (= the crowd is leaving the football ground at the end of the game), etc. Probably distantly related to the Standard English loose in the sense of ‘being free’.
lop flea ? cf Danish and Norwegian loppe ( flea)
lug (1)lug (2) to pull or carry.a knot or tangle in the hair. lugge Both uses share the sense of pulling, or tugging, something. Hair which is luggy causes the comb or brush to catch and tug.
mawk maggot mathkr mawky is also descriptive of a surly, unfriendly individual.
mell sand dunes melur Now found only as an element in place names, or as a landscape feature name.
mense decency; neatness, tidiness. mennska
mickle much, greater, large mikkel Sometimes found as an element in place names (e.g. Micklethwaite) and, in York, in the street name Micklegate.
middin, midden dung heap, rubbish tip, dustbin myki-dyngja midden is also found in Standard English, but is generally restricted to use in an archaeological context, whereas in Yorkshire it is an everyday term.
minnin-on a snack which staves off hunger until the main meal of the day minna (= to remind) May be related to the use of mind in phrases such as “Now mind you wash behind your ears”, in the sense of remembering to do something.
moss bog, marsh mose Now found only as an element in landscape feature names, such as Fleet Moss, Holme Moss, etc.
mot, motty marker used when ploughing; something to aim at; a rendezvous ? cf Norwegian mot (i retning) (towards, in the direction of) and Swedish mot (towards).
muck; mucky dirt, manure; dirty, messy. myki Also used in Standard English in expressions such as muck raking (seeking out and revealing scandal), which derives from the agricultural activity of mucking out stables, etc. In Yorkshire, muckment may also be found in use, meaning rubbish.
mun must, will, shall mun
nang troublesome, painful, irritating angr A nangling (or nankling) task is one that is tiresome, fiddly, intricate and awkward to perform.
nay no nei Rarely used now in its specifically negative sense, but more often found as a precursor to some admonishment or reprimand ( “Nay, lad, tha’s doing’ that all wrong ! ” )
ness headland, promontory næs Now to be found only as an element in the names of landscape features or in place names (e.g. Hackness, Holderness). cf French nez, as in Cap Gris Nez, etc.
nieve fist nefi
poke sack, bag, pouch poki May equally have come from the same English root as pocket
rack judgement by eye of accuracy, alignment, length, etc. (rather than by the use of a ruler or other instrument). ? Usually heard only in the dialect expression “..bi t’rack o’ t’ee” (“..by the rack of the eye”). cf Swedish rak (straight) and Norwegian rak (direct, straight, erect).
ram, rammy smelling strongly, pungent ? cf , for example, Icelandic rammur, rant, etc (strong, pungent) and Norwegian ram (pungent).
reckle to poke, to stir (especially of a fire in the hearth) ? cf Icelandic reka (thrust, run through something)
reckon to pretend, to think, to consider reikna Found also in American English, used in similar senses.
rick, reek smoke, to smoke reykja reek has passed into Standard English where it has undergone semantic shifting which appears to have followed the course smoke=>smell like smoke=>smell unpleasant like smoke=>smell unpleasant (of anything), as in “He reeks of whisky”. But, dialectally, the original meaning is retained.
Riding One of the three former administrative parts of Yorkshire (North, East and West) þriðjungr (= a third part) The Ridings were disbanded in 1974, which stimulated the initiation of an annual Yorkshire Day (1 August) by the Yorkshire Ridings Society, which continually urges the reinstatement of these Viking-originated divisions. The East Riding has since been restored. See also wapentake.
rig-welted descriptive of a sheep which is stranded by being laid on its back hrygg (spine) + velte cf Norwegian ryggrad (spine, backbone) and velte (overthrow, overturn); Swedish ryggrad (spine); Icelandic hryggur (back, spine) and velta (tumble, fall). The Standard English ridge may be associated with rig.
rive to tear or split rifa
sackless ineffectual, simple-minded, lacking in energy or effort; also innocent of wrong intent saklauss
scale summer dwelling and pasture skali Found usually as an element in place names, particularly field names. See also seat.
scar, scaur cliff, or rocky outcrop with a steep face skera Found mainly as an element in the names of landscape features, such as White Scar, or settlements which take their name from a feature (e.g. Ravenscar)
scuttle basket for holding grain; metal bucket for coal skutill The metal bucket for coal meaning is found in Standard English
seat, set(t), side summer pasture or dwelling place sætr Found usually as an element in place names, particularly field names. See also scale.
seaves rushes sef
seg hard callous of skin on the hand sigg Now used as a trade name for crescent-shaped metal studs put in the soles of boots and shoes to prolong wear.
sile, siling to rain heavily, as in “It’s siling down” ? cf Norwegian dialect sila. Also Norwegian and Swedish sila (strain, filter). There is a suggestion here of liquid running quickly through a strainer or filter.
sike, syke, sitch small stream or gulley, gutter. ? cf Icelandic síki (streamlet, rill flowing through marshy ground).
skahme, skyme to glance sideways furtively or scornfully ? cf Icelandic skamma (revile), Swedish skamsen and Norwegian skamfull (ashamed). Probably related to the Standard English shame/ashamed.
skeelbeease division or partition in a cowshed skelja (to divide)
skeller, skellered to be warped or twisted (especially of wood) ? cf Norwegian skjelende (squint) and Swedish skelögd (cross-eyed).
skell up to upset, overturn, knock down ? cf Icelandic skella, skell, skall (crash, fall wiuth a crash, throw down)
sken to look at with screwed-up eyes, peer intently ? cf Swedish sken (to glare), Norwegian skinne (to glare). 
skep, skip large wicker basket (especially that used for storing and moving materials in a textile mill) ? May be related to the Icelandic skápur (cupboard, wardrobe, locker, etc), in the sense of a container. cf also English skep (wooden or wicker basket; a straw or wicker beehive) and modern English skip (large metal container for waste), in which case the ‘Yorkshire’ words may be non-dialectal. All may be derived from an ancient root word for ship, in the sense of a ‘carrying container’ and as one primitive form of craft was the wickerwork, basket-like coracle.
skift, shift to get out of the way, to get a move on ? Clearly associated with the Standard English shift (to move, to deviate), but the sk- element may suggest a regional variation derived from Old Norse.
skimmer to shine brightly, to sparkle ? cf Swedish skina (to gleam or shine) and Norwegian skinn, skinne. Probably associated closely with the Standard English shimmer (to shine).
skitters diarrhoea skita
skive to split or pare leather or hide skifa
skrike to shriek or cry out loudly skrækja Clearly related to the Standard English shriek (cf modern Swedish pronunciation of /sk/ as /sh/)
skyr shire (county) or part of a shire county. ? Speculative ! Socio-political and administrative systems which have developed differently in the Scandinavian countries make cognate detection and comparison difficult. May be derived from the Old English scír, scíre (now shire) but with a ‘hard’ /k/ replacing the English ‘soft’ /c/ in ‘Scandinavian’ England. Now found only as an element in place names, such as Skyrack (‘shire oak’), part of Leeds.
slack a small valley or depression in the ground slakki Found mainly as an element in the names of landscape features.
slape, slaape, slippy slippery ? cf Icelandic sleppa, etc., (to become free, to escape, to get off), Norwegian sleip (slippery). It is possible that the Yorkshire dialect forms had the early meaning “..to slip away”. In some parts of Yorkshire, slape ale is a free drink of beer, or beer bought for one by someone else. Obviously related to the Standard English slip, slippery, etc. I also found the slippy variation in use in Co. Meath, Ireland, suggesting that it has wider currency in other varieties of English.
slocken to quench thirst, to drink greedily ? cf Norwegian slokke (to quench), Swedish sluka (to swallow); also Icelandic slökkva (to extinguish, put out) in the sense of quenching.
snod smooth, sleek; short (of a fleece) snoðin (= bald)
spelk, spell small sliver of wood used in thatching; splinter of wood in the skin. ? cf Norwegian spjelke (splinter), Swedish splitter (splinter).
spittle small, flat piece of wood used for putting bread in and out of the oven. ? cf Icelandic spýta, etc., (a piece of wood)
spretch to crack (as in eggs when they hatch) ? cf Norwegian sprekk and Swedish sprikka (crack).
staddle, staddling frame of posts and beams; foundations for a haystack ? cf Swedish stadig (steady), Norwegian stadig (steady, settled, stable) and Icelandic stadur (placed (upon), to be standing on). Throughout England, the stones on which grain houses, etc., stand (often mushroom-shaped to prevent ingress by vermin) are known as staddle stones and this appears to be a related term. Also possibly related to the Standard English steady.
stang pole, shaft, stake, wooden bar stangar See also biggerstang
stee, stey ladder; stile over a wall or fence stige
steg male goose (gander) steggi
steyl handle, shaft ? cf Norwegian stylte (stilt). Probably related to the Standard English stilts (posts, wooden supports).
stithy, stiddi (blacksmith’s) anvil steði May be related to the Standard English steady (see staddle, above).
stoop, stowp, stoup post, gate-post, distance marker (milestone), standing stone stolpi Sometimes found as an element in place names (e.g. Yeadon Stoops)
storken to set, to stiffen, to coagulate (especially when cooling down) storkna
stour, stower rung of a ladder; a stake or pole staurr
strang strong strangr May simply be a vowel change from the Standard English strong, but the close phonological similarity with the Old Norse suggests otherwise.
swarf, swarth grit worn from a grindstone; mixture of grease and grit or metal particles (such as iron filings) svarf swarf is to be found in Standard English usage throughout the engineering industry, etc.
tang projecting part of a knife to which the handle is fixed tange To be found in Standard English usage and not, therefore, solely dialectal
tarn lake or pond (especially in an upland location) tjarn Found mostly as an element in the names of landscape features, such as Malham Tarn.
teem to pour out, to empty (especially to pour away a liquid but also unloading a cart, etc) toema Found in Standard English in such expressions as teeming down (raining heavily) and teeming with people, etc., but the more generalised usage to indicate emptying remains dialectal.
thoil to be willing to give; to afford; to endure, tolerate, put up with ? cf Icelandic þola, Swedish tåla (to brea, put up with), Norwegian tåle (to tolerate). Found in Scotland as thole. Probably all related to the Standard English tolerate, toleration, tolerable, etc.. Found in Yorkshire usually in expressions such as “I can’t thoil it” (= “I would like to have it but can’t bear to part with the money for it”)
thorp(e), t(h)rop village or small settlement þorp Now found only as an element in place names (e.g., Priesthorpe, Knostrop, etc) and as a family surname.
throng, thrang, threng very busy, hard pressed, crowded out with work ? cf Icelandic þröng, etc. (narrow, tightly pressed; compelled, forced [in the sense of being pressed to do something] ); trang (narrow), Swedish trång (narrow, tight). All probably related to the Standard English throng (crowded, to form a tightly-packed crowd, etc.).
thwait(e) village or small settlement tveit Now found only as an element in place names (e.g., Linthwaite, Micklethwaite, etc) and as a family surname.
toft(s) small farmstead with enclosed land; later applied to a village or small settlement toft Now found only as an element in place names (e.g., Altofts, Willitoft, etc) and as a family surname
thrums ends cut from the warp thread while on the loom, during the weaving of woollen cloth (were at one time commonly used for home rug making) throemr
upskittle to upturn, turn over, restore to upright position ? cf Norwegian skyttle (shuttle). The Standard English shuttle means “..to send to and fro”, hence, the shuttle of a loom which travels back and forth, which is a specialsed use of the term. skittles (the wooden pins which are knocked over by a ball then returned to their upright position) seems to be associated and share something of the same sense, as do shuttle service (in transport), shuttle diplomacy, etc. In all cases, the sense is one of being returned to an earlier place or position.
wapentake historic sub-division of a shire county, with a periodic assembly at which freeman could vote by a show of weapons. vapntak The wapentakes in the Danelaw equated with the hundreds of the more southerly ‘Saxon’ counties. In Yorkshire, the wapentakes were sub-divisions of the Ridings and, though the latter were dismantled in 1974, wapentakes survive for some administrative/legal purposes. See also Riding.
whinny gorse, furze, thorny vegetation ? cf Norwegian hvine
wye young cow up to about three years old kviga
yacker, acker acre akr An acre is an ancient measurement of land, standardised now at 4840 square yards (0.4047  of a hectare). The measurement survives in British agriculture and acre is in use in Standard English, though the pronunciations given here are dialectal
yawd horse of inferior breeding jalda
yest yeast joestr yeast is a Standard English word but the pronunciation given here is dialectal

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