Have you heard of the Viking Sheikh?

Here are two words that really could be listed as each other’s proper translation in any English-Danish dictionary, but aren’t: (English) Ship <-> (Danish) Skab . “Skab” in Danish normally means”a closet” or “a cabinet”. i.e. a piece of furniture, -so nothing at all like a seafaring ship… What’s the connection?
As we all, and particularly linguists, know: “context is everything”, so, yes indeed a “ship” becomes equivalent to “a closet” when these two words appear not as standalone words, but as last syllables, or suffixes, of compound words indicating “something official”:

English ==> Danish:

Mayorship ==> Borgmesterskab
World Championship ==> Verdensmesterskab
Citizenship ==> Borgerskab
Leadership ==> Lederskab
Marriage ==> Ægteskab

I have an interesting theory about how this came about that a “Ship” became a “Closet”: I think the two words actually point back to a common Saxon ancestor-word from some 1300 years ago (say, around 700 AC), when the Viking Juts, Angles and Saxons came from what is today’s Denmark and occupied what is today England.

Whatever was spoken then must for a while have been the same language spoken on both sides of North Sea and then it gradually evolved differently into English on the left side of North Sea and Danish on the right side of that body of water:

It’s easy to imagine that both “-ship”  and “-skab” as suffixes have not much to do with their same-sounding stand-alone cousin words in both English and Danish, but rather both point back to a common ancestor-word signifying something official and authoritative. Something rather guttural in sound, as Danish still is today, where “h” and “k” sounded similar and so did “p” and “b”, and “a” and “e” were so flat, they could easily be mistaken for each other. So, probably something like “Skhaipb“, which then evolved into “-Ship” in  modern English and “-Skab” in modern Danish. And the old root-word signifying authority remains alive in the same word still present the same in both English and Danish: “Skipper“, i.e. the Man in Charge.

But wait then, what about the other word also present the same way in both modern English and modern Danish: “to Skip“? It seems paradoxical that “a Skipper” is someone in charge, who cares about details and deals with things, while “skipping” signifies the exactly opposite: to not care too much, to “touch and go”? I think this actually gives us another piece of the interesting historical puzzle of how Danish/English evolved from being the same into being different:

According to Wikipedia, the word “Skip” in old Norse actually meant what we today call a Ship. Knowing the shape of the Viking vessels suddenly it all makes perfect sense: the Vikings invent the shallow-bottomed vessels which sit so high in the water that they don’t cut through it, but rather “bump” or SKIP from wave top to wave top. So, SKIP was probably the first word. It meant “to avoid sinking to deep”, to  skip from plop to plop. Then the verb SKIP evolved into the noun SHIP as the art of skipping became signified by the vessels which moved forward in a SKIPPING way. Then Ships became very important as the Viking civilization evolved around the art of navigating the ships, so the words “Skhaipb” and “Skipper“, were derived from the word for Ship of yore to signify something official and important.
-And maybe, just maybe, the Arabs borrowed the word for an important man and made it into “Sheikh” – a Wise Man. As both archaeological finds and the great Hollywood movie “The 13th Warrior” with Antonio Banderas prove (OK, the latter may not be an entirely trustworthy historical source, but it sure is entertaining 🙂 ) there were widespread connections between the Arab and the Viking traders.

I am totally making this up, but it would be funny if some of this were true. We’ll never know 100%. It sure is fun to play Sherlock Homes, though, just by deducing how one word may lead to another….


The British are coming! The English is coming! Are you with?

“The British are coming!” is of course the famous line attributed to Paul Revere, one of the founding fathers of USA, best known for his “Midnight Ride” from Boston to Lexington on April 18, 1775. He was supposedly shouting “The British are coming!” to warn the rebel colonist forces of an impending attack by the British Redcoats. The line was immortalized, and apparently also made up, in a famous poem by Longfellow: “Paul Revere’s Ride“. “Made up” because historians are of the conviction that while the ride really occurred, the actual warning was most likely delivered in silence…

The “English is coming!” is my word-play on Paul Revere’s (or Longfellow’s) famous line. The English language and English words are of course sneaking their way into contemporary Danish vocabulary, both openly and silently. It’s no wonder in a country like Denmark, where upwards of 80% of Danes do, or think they do :-), speak fluent English. So, the English is coming inside Danish. Are you with?

“Are you with”: In Danish we often use the expression “Er du med?”, which correctly translated means “Do you follow me?”. Incorrect, verbatim translation is, however, “Are you with”. Yes, it is OK in Danish to end a sentence with a preposition. The trap, which many a Danish English-speaker has fallen into, is of course that the preposition rules are different in English and also that some times English has different words, when Danish has just one. In this case translating “med” with “along” rather than “with” would yield maybe not a 100% correct English, but at least something much closer to it. Are you along?

Any English-speaking visitor visiting Denmark today will be shocked by the prevalence of the fine English curse-word “F**ck”. It has sneaked its way in and it’s everywhere. Maybe you won’t see it written, but you’ll hear it used on TV, radio and pretty much everywhere interspersed into otherwise faultless Danish. This always reminds me of that general cultural observation that a curse in a foreign language is not really a curse. Even though most Danes speak and write English, it is NOT their primary language and therefore throwing in what just seems to be a funny-sounding foreign word, even though that word is not so nice in its original language, seems totally OK. I remember how in my youth in Denmark we used the funny sounding (to us) German word “gewesen” (=”has been”) to refer to anything we didn’t know the exact name of, sort of equivalent to the modern English slang words “do-hickey” and “whatchamacallit”…

So, some English words, like “f**ck”, silently sneak their way into Danish. Eventually some get accepted and become “official” Danish:

In my previous posting I mentioned the English word “to spend”, which does not have a direct equivalent in Danish. Well, a correction is needed and one that shows how it can be tricky when English words start appearing in Danish. “To spend” USED to NOT have a direct equivalent in Danish. Now it does have one. The official Danish vocabulary and spelling dictionary, Retskrivningsordbogen, now includes the word “spendere”, which is the “danish-ized” direct adaptation of “to spend”. Clearly, if we Danes know it exists in English and it covers an exact, useful concept, we want it too :-). The trickiness of “spendere” is that its meaning is ever so slightly, slightly different in Danish!:

  • “At bruge penge” means “to spend money” (in a serious way).
  • “At spendere penge”, however, has more of a wasteful connotation, closer to “to blow the money”.

Why? Here I have a theory: I think it’s because “at spendere” ends up sounding very close to the Danish verb “at spilde”, which means “to waste”. We store things in our brain by similarities, so that’s probably what colors the meaning of “at spendere” in Danish.

And of course one has to be careful with word-combinations and abstractization. Take the previously mentioned  “Spending Power”: the direct translation “Spenderingskraft” would still be meaningless in Danish. “Købekraft” is still correct.



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