The Old Norse feminine noun víking refers to an expedition overseas. It occurs in Viking Age runic inscriptions and in later medieval writings in set expressions such as the phrasal verb fara í víking "to go on an expedition". In later texts such as the Icelandic sagas, the phrase "to go viking" implies participation in raiding activity or piracy, and not simply seaborne missions of trade and commerce. The related Old Norse masculine noun víkingr appears in Viking Age skaldic poetry and on several rune stones found in Scandinavia, where it refers to a seaman or warrior who takes part in an expedition overseas. The form also occurs as a personal name on some Swedish rune stones. There is little indication of any negative connotation in the term before the end of the Viking Age. Regardless of its possible origins, the word was used to indicate an activity and those who participated in it, and it did not belong to any ethnic or cultural group.
In Old English, the word wicing appears first in the Anglo-Saxon poem, "Widsith", which probably dates from the 9th century. In Old English, and in the history of the archbishops of Hamburg-Bremen written by Adam of Bremen in about 1070, the term is synonymous with pirate and a Scandinavian. As in the Old Norse usages, the term is not employed as a name for any people or culture in general. The word does not occur in any preserved Middle English texts.
There are several theories on the etymology of the word Viking. According to recent research, the word dates from before the sail was taken into use by the Germanic peoples of North-Western Europe, because the Old Frisian spelling shows that the word was pronounced with a palatal k and thus in all probability existed in North-Western Germanic before that palatalization happened, i.e. in the 5th century or before (in the western branch). In that case the word can be explained from the Old Scandinavian maritime distance unit, vika (f.), which probably originally referred to the distance covered by one shift of rowers. The Old Norse feminine víking (as in the phrase fara í víking) may originally have been a sea journey characterized by the shifting of rowers, i.e. a long-distance sea journey, because in the pre-sail era, the shifting of rowers would distinguish long-distance sea journeys. A víkingr (the masculine) would then originally have been a participant on a sea journey characterized by the shifting of rowers. In that case, the word Viking was not originally connected to Scandinavian seafarers but assumed this meaning when the Scandinavians begun to dominate the seas. – The starting-point of the distance unit vika is the verb that in Old Scandinavian had the form víka (Old Icelandic víkja) 'to recede, turn to the side, give way, yield', and the idea behind it seems to be that the tired rower moves aside for the rested rower on the thwart when he relieves him. At the same time, vika is the same word as a week 'seven days'; in both cases the real meaning is 'a shift, a rotation'. A sea week really means 'a rotation (of rowers)', and seven days really is a rotation of week-day gods – Wednesday is Wōdanaz's day, Thursday is Þunaraz's day, Friday is Frijjō's day, etc.
The idea that the word Viking is connected to the maritime distance unit vika has been put forward by at least four persons independently since the early 1980s, and has gained substantial support among scholars in recent years. Traditionally, two other explanations have been favoured: 1. The word Viking derives from the feminine that in Old Scandinavian had the form vík and which means 'a bay'. The idea would then be that the Vikings would seek shelter in bays and attack merchant ships from there, or make land raids from there. 2. Viking derives from the name Vík(in) 'the Norwegian coast of the Skagerrak Sea' (modern Viken). The idea would then be that Vikings originally was a term for the peoples of this area, and secondarily assumed the meaning 'pirates, sea raiders' because these peoples played a prominent role in the Viking raids. Both these explanations are highly problematic. The first is contradicted by the fact that all seafarers make for harbour in bays; that can hardly have distinguished the Vikings. To the contrary, according to the sources, the Vikings rather made camp on headlands and islands, which were more easily defendable from land-based armies. The second explanation faces several problems: First, people from Vík(in) are in Old Norse manuscripts referred to as víkverir 'Vík dwellers', never as víkingar. Second, no medieval source, neither from Scandinavia nor the rest of Europe, connects the Vikings with the Norwegian Skagerrak coast. Third, this explanations runs into formal linguistic problems. In addition, these explanations could only explain the masculine (Old Scandinavian víkingr) and ignore the feminine (Old Scandinavian víking), which is a serious problem because the masculine can easily be derived from the feminine but hardly vice versa.
In the modern Scandinavian languages, the word Viking usually refers specifically to those people who went on Viking expeditions.
The word Viking was introduced into Modern English during the 18th-century Viking revival, at which point it acquired romanticised heroic overtones of "barbarian warrior" or noble savage. During the 20th century, the meaning of the term was expanded to refer not only to seaborne raiders from Scandinavia, but secondarily to any Scandinavian who lived during the period from the late eighth to the mid-11th centuries, or more loosely from c. 700 to as late as about 1100. As an adjective, the word is used to refer to ideas, phenomena or artefacts connected with Scandinavians and their cultural life in these centuries, producing expressions like "Viking age", "Viking culture", "Viking art", "Viking religion", "Viking ship", and so on. The people of medieval Scandinavia are also referred to as Norse, although this term properly applies only to the Old-Norse-speaking peoples of Scandinavia, and not to the Sami.
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