The Correct Semantic Usage Of The Term “Viking”

This brief article showcases the correct semantic usage of the term “Viking”. Many people tend to mistake the term “Viking” for the broader sense of all Norsemen (i.e. the early medieval Scandinavians). In fact, the term only denotes the occupation of a Norseman and not the ethnicity of the respective individual. Regarding the etymology of the word itself, various linguistic theories had been proposed in order to explain from which root had it actually been derived.

Viking Age re-enactors. Image source:

According to the most well known linguistic theories, the term “Viking” might denote the following:

  • The term ‘Viking’ can be derived from the Old Norse counterpart “Vikingr” (meaning “pirate”);
  • The term Viking can be derived from the word “vík” from Old Norse (a “small bay” or a “creek” in translation);
  • The term ‘Viking’ could have been derived from the name of a modern Norwegian district called “Viken” (less likely), implying that the term would ultimately describe a person who lived there and subsequently gained a broader usage for all early medieval Scandinavians;
  • The term ‘Viking’ can be derived from “vika”, which in translation means “sea mile”. This theory is better linguistically attested since it is known that a Proto-Nordic root “wikan” means “to turn” or “to move”, thus linking the term with the nautical ability of a Norseman.

Therefore, the correct semantic usage of the term “Viking” can be explained in a nutshell as follows: All Vikings were Norsemen but not all Norsemen were Vikings. In other words, to be Viking was an occupation. It meant that a certain person would go a Viking if he or she would have been disposed to raid, plunder, loot and explore lands overseas.

To be a Viking was not the same thing as being a thief. Theft was not tolerated under any circumstances in the Norse society. In the end, what separated Vikings from thieves were the raids. The raids represented the unique and most valuable chances for one to prove worthy in battle, gain honour and respect, thus exponentially increasing his or her social status, evidently depending on the achievements made on the battlefield.

In modern North Germanic languages the term “Viking” is present under almost the same form:

  • Danish, Norwegian, and Swedish – Viking
  • Icelandic and Faroese – Víkingur

Documentation sources and external links:

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8 Responses to The Correct Semantic Usage Of The Term “Viking”

  1. kalis says:

    I think that “viking ” comes from ” wikan”..

  2. drew says:

    Interesting for in the Edda & or the sagas we find a character ‘named’ Viking’.

  3. per backman says:

    Viking is a myth invented by nationalists in the late 1800’s. Come on, there was never any Vikings! Wake up! the idea was heavily supported by wagner and later by racist and nationalist political currents! We where gaeter, ruser and svinoner etc. Viking is a very recent invention that only exists today. and the historical province of Viken is located from Gothenburg, Sweden to Oslo, Norway. Todays Östfold and Bohuslän.

  4. Esimotso says:

    Two comments:

    -The phrase “go a Viking” should probably be spelled “go aViking” ot “go a-Viking”..

    -re “theft” and “raid”: Theft, like murder, occurs *within* a society. When you do it to someone else *outside8 your society, it’s neither theft nor murder.,

  5. All the Vikings were not Norse (Scandinavian). The Norse settlers in the Irish Sea area were known to ally with every local faction there was going, fighting with them and raiding with them. Cerbal king of Ossory in the south-east of the island married one of his daughters to Eyvindur Austman (a (now) Swedish then Danish) shipbuilder in Dublin. Part of Dublin still bears his nickname Austman. Cerbal became known as MuirCerbal or Kjarval of the sea (Marine-Kjarval). Kormakur (Cormac) fought with Haraldur Harfagri (fairheared), but left Norway to settle in Iceland when Eiric Blodaxe came to the throne. These are Celtic Vikings whose names are mentioned, there were many more / Vifill settler in Iceland with Aud the deepminded. Most likely Aud herself was half Celtic, all her siblings and most of their children settled in Iceland with further Celtic admixture. Many of the grandchildren had Celtic nicknames. All these people were Vikings in the Irish Sea area before settling in Iceland. Jomsvikingar were certainly as much Slavic as they were Norse etc. Not all Vikings were Norse. There should not need to be a dispute about this!

    • I forgot to mention the twin brothers Hamundur and Geirmundur Heljarskin. According to the sagas both vent aViking. They were half-Mongolian (most likely Buryat-Mongolian I.e. from the area around Lake Baikal as per DNA indicators).

  6. De Sutter Gunhild says:

    The Saxon-Frisian an Flemish word “ Wicham, Wikham and Wykeham already excist long before the Scandinavian Viking season. There were Wiking matters long before the word “ wiking” was used. Such activities were mentioned by Orosius in the 1th C. AD on the West coast of northern Europe…..

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