The Icelandic language is famous for rejecting loan words, offering up novel neologisms constructed from native components instead of adopting foreign words. To the relief of language purists, these new words usually stick. Some words, however, just don’t roll off the tongue. They gather dust as cute linguistic novelties while their clunky counterparts enter common parlance. Icelandic names for fruits haven’t fared so well, perhaps due to the fact that they tend to describe the fruit in gross detail: it’s little surprise that banani (“banana”) has won out over bjúgaldin, which literally means “sausage fruit.” Yummy. Moreover, banani conveniently declines, producing the comical form “banönunum” or “bönununum” in the dative plural with the definite article suffixed. So too, kíví (“kiwi”) seems far more innocuous than loðber, which means “hairy berry” and conjures up some unsavory images. Tómatur perhaps replaced rauðaldin (“red fruit”) when the Árni Magnússon Institute discovered the joy of fried green tomatoes and realized they need not judge fruits by the colour of their skin.
While Icelandic cocktail culture is still in its nascency, there’s no ambiguity that kokteill has all but supplanted hanastél, which literally means “cock tail.” Perhaps this is a loss, since hani etymologically invokes hæna, which means “hen,” but can also be used to describe someone who gets wasted on a small amount of booze. After drinking some kokteilar, you’ll get funny looks if you ask where the snyrting is. Sure, this word still appears on bathroom doors in some more respectable establishments, but it’s the English equivalent of asking where the “washroom” is. You’d be better off using the word klósett which comes, by means of Danish, from the English “water closet.” Be warned, however, that klósett refers to the toilet itself, lest you announce that you need to go “into the toilet.” After your klósett visit, if you have the drunchies and fancy a slab of grease, you won’t find any shop advertising flatbökur. Quaint as it is to call pizza “flat pie,” Icelanders are just fine with pítsa or pizza. This latter option flouts the language reforms of 1973 whereby the letter “z” was replaced by “s”—thankfully so, lest the word become indistinguishable from the verb pissa, which, of course, means “to piss.” And who’s to say whether that word came from English, or from the universal language of the potty.
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