Published October 24, 2011


Considering Iceland’s unique position as a geological hotbed on the mid-Atlantic ridge, it’s not surprising that a couple of geological terms have been borrowed from the Icelandic language. These words are “jökulhlaup,” a scientific term used to describe the flood of water resulting from a sub-glacial volcanic eruption, and “geyser,” a hot spring that shoots a column of water into the air.
The word “jökulhlaup” is made up of the two Old Norse words, “jökull” and “hlaup,” which translate to ‘glacier’ and ‘run’ and describes the same phenomenon in both Icelandic and English languages. “Geysir,” from which the English word geyser is derived, on the other hand, is actually the proper name of Iceland’s most famous geyser. The generic term in Icelandic is not geysir, but “goshver.” In that sense, using the term “geyser” to describe a goshver is almost like calling all copy machines, “xerox machines,” all colourful gelatines eaten by kids, “jello,” and all tissue used to blow noses, “kleenex.” Although it’s not really so conflated because “geyser” comes from “Geysir,” which comes from the Old Norse word, “geysa,” which means to gush.
While jökulhlaup and geyser are among the few words borrowed from Icelandic, many English words are derived directly from Old Norse, the language spoken by Iceland’s Viking ancestors a thousand years ago. When the Vikings sailed to the English-speaking world, they planted Old Norse into the existing language, which has resulted in the growth of a number of cognates shared by the modern English and Icelandic languages. Some of them, including the word “berserk” also have unique historical origins in Iceland.
Berserk – adj. marked by crazed or frenzied behaviour suggestive of sudden mental imbalance—usually used in the phrase, go berserk.” – Merriam Webster dictionary
Perhaps it seems apt that the word “berserk” has some history in a country full of people who supposedly believe in a hidden world of elves, ghosts and fairies—at least to those who think that’s totally bonkers, nuts, bananas, crackers, whatever. But, the word berserk has nothing to do with that. It actually refers to the “Berserkers,” who were Vikings notorious for their frenzied battles.
Descriptions of the Berserkers can be found in a number of Old Icelandic Sagas, including Snorri Sturluson’s Ynglinga saga: “his [Odin’s] men rushed forward without armour, were as mad as dogs or wolves, bit their shields, and were as strong as bears or wild bulls, and killed people at a blow, but neither fire nor iron told upon themselves.”
One theory about why they ran wild on the battlefield has these Vikings consuming the psychoactive Amanita Muscaria mushroom (known as the Berserker mushroom in Iceland). In his article, ‘On Going Berserk: A neurochemical inquiry,’ psychiatrist Howard Fabing finds that the consumption of bufotenine, which is found in the Amanita Muscaria mushroom, may play a neurological role in causing schizophrenia, supporting this theory of how the already ferocious Vikings worked themselves into a berserker rage on the battlefield.
But fear not, the Berserkers are said to have disappeared around 1100 AD after being sentenced to outlawry, and the modern day berserk usually doesn’t travel in pillaging gangs.

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