As much as it’s discouraged by our elders, curse words tend to sneak into the vocabularies of most people at some point in their lives. Icelanders are no exception. However, given that Icelandic is one of the older languages still spoken, we were wondering: where do Icelandic swears come from? For an answer, we went to linguistics professor Þórhallur Eyþórsson at the University of Iceland.
“It seems that most of the swear words we use originated in Icelandic after the advent of Christianity,” Þórhallur explains. “Iceland was Christianized in the year 1000 CE, so most of the swear words are actually of Christian origin. That is to say, words like ‘djöfull’, meaning ‘devil’, (which ultimately comes from Greek), usually came into Icelandic via other languages. The early ones via Old English, some via old Saxon (which is an old variety of northern German), and some via Danish.”
Outside influences are nothing new when it comes to the development of any language. With trade and moving settlements, vocabulary and cultural exchange is unavoidable. Though it does seem a little ironic that it was Christianity in particular that gave rise to the more popular naughty words. Þórhallur gives a few examples:
“‘Djöfull’ is an old one and as a swear word it’s quite common. ‘Andskotin’ is another one, a native word meaning ‘adversary’. Literally speaking, it’s someone who shoots against you (‘And’ – against; ‘skotin’ – comes from ‘skota’ – to shoot). The biggest adversary in Christianity being, of course, the devil. Another common curse of Christian origin is ‘helvítis’ or ‘helvíti’ which is the word for hell. The ‘hel’-part is actually pagan, referring to the goddess of the dead, Hel, but ‘víti’ is like an inferno. It’s the pit where damned people burn forever. So, it combines pagan and Christian elements. For another example of this, the word ‘blót’ is of pagan origin and meant ‘sacrifice’ and got its connotation as a swear word after the introduction of Christianity. ‘Að blóta’ now means ‘to curse’ instead of ‘to sacrifice’.”
‘Djöfull’, ‘Andskotin’ and ‘helvítis’ tend to be the most common Icelandic swears but anyone walking around downtown Reykjavík is bound to overhear some Icelandicized English terms that are used to express frustration and emphasis.
“We’re getting some new swear words with the English influence like ‘sjitt’ (shit),” Þórhallur says. “‘Fucking’ is also quite common. With its own Icelandic spelling of course: ‘Fokking’. I think it became more famous here in Iceland during the financial crisis in 2008, when there were people protesting in front of the parliament and there was some guy holding a sign that said “Helvítis Fokking Fokk!!” (I don’t have to translate that I guess).”
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