33 Crass and Creative Norse Nicknames

Getty Images
Getty Images

Before surnames were a well-established way of telling one Olaf or Astrid from another, identifying nicknames were far more prevalent. Historical figures had their share of quirky epithets—from Albert the Peculiar to Zeno the Hermit—but the Norse Vikings seem to have had them beat when it comes to comical range and sheer absurdity.

Paul Peterson, now a teaching fellow in Scandinavian and German at Augustana College in Illinois, dedicated his advanced studies to Norse nicknames, completing a masters thesis and doctoral dissertation [PDF] at the University of Minnesota on the subject. He writes in the abstract, “The quantity of nicknames in Old Norse literature is incomparably rich, and recurring nicknames provide a tool for understanding saga transmission, cultural history, slang, and etymology.” Plus, some of them are really silly.

Many—although not all—of the nicknames he cites through the text are pulled from a compendium of Icelandic settlers in the 9th and 10th centuries called Landnámabók (The Book of Settlements) and fall into the following rough categories: “those describing physical features, mental characteristics, and one’s deeds or habits (good or bad).” Often, they're not exactly flattering.

Monarchical nicknames—both legendary and historical—are especially descriptive, and often survive in the Norse canon along with an explanation for the epithet that helps to contextualize the king. These include:

1. Óttarr the Vendel Crow: So given because after he was slain in a battle at Vendill, his body was eaten by crows.

2. Hálfdan the Generous and the Stingy with Food: This contradictory nickname is rooted in a surviving anecdote that claims the king paid his men well, but also starved them.

3. Walking-Hrólfr: A royal count, Hrólfr was said to be given this nickname because he was too large for any horses to carry him, and thus he walked everywhere.

4. Magnús Barefoot or Barelegged: King Magnus traveled west to the British Isles, where he and his men adopted the kilt styles worn there, and brought the fashion back to Norway. The sartorial choice was especially noteworthy after a blow to his bare leg in battle ultimately cost him his life.

5. Haraldr War Tooth: There is some discrepancy in the legends about Haraldr—whether he earned his epithet through naturally prominent (and yellow) teeth or whether he was bestowed with a mystical immunity that included re-growing a pair of teeth that were knocked out on his wedding night.

Sometimes, an explanation of the nicknames of non-royal Vikings, however obtuse, was also included in the text. Such as:

6. Billy Goat Bjǫrn: So-called because he dreamed of a “rock-dweller” and awoke to find an extra male goat amongst his herd, which quickly multiplied and made Bjorn wealthy.

7. Ǫlvir the Friend of Children: There was a low bar for earning this epithet in Medieval Iceland. Ǫlvir was a friend of children because, according to Landnámabók, “He did not allow himself to catch children on spears, as was then customary among Vikings.”

8. Þórir Leather Neck: He earned what was likely a mocking nickname after attempting to fashion armor with cheaper cowhide.

9. Ragnarr Hairy Breeches: The explanation given for this nickname—that Ragnarr was wearing his hairy breeches when he slew a serpent to win his wife’s hand in marriage—makes sense as a momentous occasion worth commemorating, but it doesn’t explain why he was wearing the fur pants to begin with.

10. Þóra Hart of the Castle: Like many women’s nicknames, this is a reference to beauty. Þóra was said to be so beautiful that she stood out from other women as a hart (or stag) stands out from other animals.

11. Þorbjǫrg Coal Brow: Her nickname is a reference to her black hair and eyebrows—but it is not intended as a compliment among Vikings.

12. Hallgerðr Long Pants: The wife of a legendary hero, Hallgerðr’s nickname refers to her abnormal height and thus, presumably, the long pants she would have to wear.

Many nicknames survive without any explanation (though many are obvious enough that you could probably guess why the epithet was given). A surprising number are openly insulting and include crude sexual allusions or “potty humor”:

13. Kolbeinn Butter Penis

14. Eysteinn Foul-Fart

15. Herjólfr Shriveled Testicle

16. Ásný Ship-Chest (or: Ásný The Busty)

17. Þórir Billy Goat’s Thigh

18. Skagi the Ruler of S**t

19. Ásgeirr the Terror of the Norwegians

20. Bǫðvarrthe Little Bear

21. Auðr the Deep-Minded

22. Finni the Dream Interpreter

23. Olaf the Witch-Breaker

24. Vemund the Word-Master

25. Hlif the Castrator of Horses

26. Astrid the Wisdom-Slope

27. Ófeigr the Grimacer

28. Tjǫrvi the Ridiculer

29. Vékell the Shape-Shifting

30. Þorfinnr the Splitter of Skulls

31. Bjarni the Tall Man with a House

32. Hjǫrleifr the Amorous

33. Þorgeirr the Frantic

[h/t Medievalists.net]

Amazon's Under-the-Radar Coupon Page Features Deals on Home Goods, Electronics, and Groceries

Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0
Stock Catalog, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

Now that Prime Day is over, and with Black Friday and Cyber Monday still a few weeks away, online deals may seem harder to come by. And while it can be a hassle to scour the internet for promo codes, buy-one-get-one deals, and flash sales, Amazon actually has an extensive coupon page you might not know about that features deals to look through every day.

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How Lolita Author Vladimir Nabokov Helped Ruth Bader Ginsburg Find Her Voice

Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2016.
Ruth Bader Ginsburg in 2016.
Supreme Court of the United States, Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

The road to becoming a Supreme Court justice is paved with legal briefs, opinions, journal articles, and other written works. In short, you’d likely never get there without a strong writing voice and a knack for clear communication.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg learned these skills from one of the best: Vladimir Nabokov. Though most famous for his 1955 novel Lolita, the Russian-American author wrote countless works in many more formats, from short stories and essays to poems and plays. He also taught literature courses at several universities around the country, including Cornell—where Bader Ginsburg received her undergraduate degree in the early 1950s. While there, she took Nabokov’s course on European literature, and his lessons made an impact that would last for decades to come.

“He was a man who was in love with the sound of words. It had to be the right word and in the right word order. So he changed the way I read, the way I write. He was an enormous influence,” Ginsburg said in an interview with legal writing expert Bryan A. Garner. “To this day I can hear some of the things that he said. Bleak House [by Charles Dickens] was one of the books that we read in his course, and he started out just reading the first few pages about the fog and Miss Flite. So those were strong influences on my writing.”

As Literary Hub reports, it wasn’t the only time RBG mentioned Nabokov’s focus not only on word choice, but also on word placement; she repeated the message in a 2016 op-ed for The New York Times. “Words could paint pictures, I learned from him,” she wrote. “Choosing the right word, and the right word order, he illustrated, could make an enormous difference in conveying an image or an idea.”

While neither Dickens nor Nabokov were writing for a legal audience, their ability to elicit a certain understanding or reaction from readers was something Ginsburg would go on to emulate when expressing herself in and out of the courtroom. In this way, Nabokov’s tutelage illuminated the parallels between literature and law.

“I think that law should be a literary profession, and the best legal practitioners regard law as an art as well as a craft,” she told Garner.