Words that end in ‑wegian (part 1)

Words that end in ‑wegian (part 1)

20. April, 2019


Oxford

Some­times, a word or phrase will strike me as odd, and I start wondering about its possible origin. Especially when the ex­planation seems to be some­what ob­scure or maybe non-existent.

For example the word Glas­wegian as the word for a person or dia­lect from Glas­gow. Why does it end in ‑wegian? The only other word with this ending that springs to mind is Nor­wegian, and it seems odd that a place name ending in ‑gow would abandon its final syllable and, in its place, take the same ending as a place name ending in ‑way.

So, how many words end in ‑wegian? Where does this ending come from? And why does it lend itself to other seemingly un­related place names so easily?

I will try to an­swer these questions, but it be­came too long for one blog post, so I have split it into two. Let’s begin at the origin.

The Scandi­navian sort

Norway

First of all, we might ask: Why is a person from Nor­way called a Nor­wegian? The g seems to appear out of no­where.

The ex­planation can be found in the origin of the name. It was originally com­posed of two elements in Old Norse: Norðr meaning “north” and vegr meaning “way”1. In Old English the name of the Nordic country was borrowed (or directly trans­lated to) Norþ­weg or Norð­weg2, and this spelling with a g gave rise to the modern latin­ization of the name to Nor­vegia. This makes the Latin adjective Nor­vegius or Nor­vegicus, which then leads to the English Nor­wegian3.

This page from an 11th century manu­script of Orosius’ “Seven Books of History Against the Pagans”4 contains one of the earliest mentions of Nor­way in English. The last word of the top line, which con­tinues on the next line, reads Noꞃð­ƿeᵹe (North­wege). Den­mark is also mentioned on the bottom line as Ꝺena meaꞃc (Dena mearc).

As an aside, I’d like to mention that the Nor­wegians don’t call them­selves Nor­wegians, but rather nord­menn (“north men”), and they speak norsk. This is in line with the other Scandi­navian countries, which have relatively simple demo­nyms, because the countries are named after their respective peoples: Den­mark is inhabited by Danes speaking Danish, and Sweden houses Swedish Swedes.

Scandi­navia as a whole

Now back to the issue of the ending’s use in other words. For some reason, Nor­wegian has fostered a couple of port­manteau slang words for Scandi­navians. For example, Scandi­wegian5 is just a silly way of saying Scandi­navian, which com­bines the first part of Scandi-navian with the second part of Nor-wegian.

There is even the word Scow­egian6, which is slang for a Scandi­navian sailor or vessel. Here, the first part scow is a word borrowed from Dutch schouw—a term for a type of boat7.

These are all the ‑wegian words that refer to Scandi­navians. But as we know, the ending is also applied to places outside of Scandi­navia. So let’s go to Great Britain and Ire­land.

The British and Hibernian sort

The British Isles have made the ending ‑wegian their own by attaching it to names of local places. Mostly these place names have an ending that looks similar to Norway’s, and the ending has been added in analogy to the word Nor­wegian.

It probably also helps that many of these places are in Scot­land and Ire­land, which have a history of Viking settle­ment. Not that the Scandi­navians brought their demo­nym with them (as noted, they didn’t use it them­selves), but rather that the English-speaking neigh­bours may have associated the places with Scandi­navians and could have been en­clined to use an ending they deemed suitably “Scandi­wegian”.

Place names ending in way

The obvious analogy to Nor­way are place names that end in ‑way. For example Gallo­way, Gal­way and Storno­way.

Gallo­way

People from Gallo­way in Scot­land can be called Gallo­wegians or even Gal­wegians8. But the Latin name of the Scottish region is Gallo­vidia, so the in­habitants can also be called Gallo­vidians9.

Gallo­vidia as the latin name of Gallo­way on a 1654 map from “Atlas of Scot­land”10.

In fact, the name doesn’t seem to have ever ended in a g. Its Scottish Gaelic name is Gall-Ghaidhea­laibh11. Similarly, it is called Gall-gaidhil in Irish, and Gall­wyddel in Welsh9. This use of the ‑wegian ending is thus a re­pur­posing that doesn’t make etymo­logical sense, but sounds right to modern ears12.

Gal­way

So, what are people from Gal­way in Ire­land called? It seems Gallo­way has taken all the variants for them­selves.

People from Gal­way are also called Gal­wegians13 (or, alter­natively, Galway­men and Galway­women). This can­not be ex­plained by the Irish name, which is Gaillimh14. The English name is derived from the Irish and was initially angli­cized as Galliv, Gallive, or Galliva in an effort to match the Irish pro­nun­ciation. But as time went on, the i and the v changed places (a pro­cess known as meta­thesis), giving the name Gal­via15. This is identical to its modern Latin name, so you could expect to see the word Gal­vians in reference to the in­habitants of Gal­way, but I haven’t been able to find that any­where. It seems then, that the ‑way of Gal­way is actually a mis­trans­lation of ‑via inter­preted as the Latin word for “road”. From this point, it is not a far stretch to apply the ending ‑wegian in analogy to Nor­wegian, because Nor­way ends with the same element.

Update (24 October 2019):
The rugby team in Galway is also called Galwegians, and their name can be shortened to ’Wegians16. This gives new life to the ending as a stand-alone word.

Storno­way

Storno­way on the Isle of Lewis in Scot­land may be the most sensible place name to use a demo­nym ending in ‑wegian (apart from Nor­way, of course). The word Storno­wegian, how­ever, is not common enough to appear in any of the dictionaries, I could get my hands on.

Map of Storno­way according to the 1948 Ordnance Survey17.

This town was actually founded by Vikings and called some­thing akin to Stjórna­vágr in Old Norse18. And the Scottish Gaelic name also re­tains a g in its spelling: Steòrna­bhagh19.

Of course, the ending ‑vágr, meaning “voe” or “inlet”, is not the same as ‑vegr, meaning “way”. So, once again, the ending is added in analogy.

Storno­way doesn’t appear to have a Latin name, so we can’t compare it to that. But Storno­wegian could lead to a back-formation to a neo-Latin name of Storno­vegia.

To be con­tinued...

Next time, I will take a look at some more place names, in­cluding some that end in ‑wick and ‑gow. I will also com­ment on the use of the ‑wegian ending in Australia.


  1. It is dis­puted whether the first element in Old Norse is in fact norðr or the alter­native nór meaning “narrow”, but for our pur­poses we are mostly inter­ested in the ending. (Source: Uia.no

  2. Oxford English Dictionary, at Nor­way n.:

    The name is attested in English from the early 11th cent.: in Old English as Norð­weg.

  3. Oxford English Dictionary, at Nor­wegian n. and adj.:

    Etymology: < post-classical Latin Nor­wegius (adjective) Nor­wegian (1252 in a British source; < Nor­wegia Nor­way (see Nor­way n.)) + -an suffix.

  4. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public domain 🅮). 

  5. Wiktionary.org, at Scandi­wegian adj.:

    1. (derogatory) Be­longing or re­lating to a style of interior furnishings that is middle­brow, bland, and modern.
    2. (in­formal, humorous) Vaguely Scandi­navian or Nordic.

  6. See Green’s Dictionary of Slang: Scow­egian n. and Scow­egian adj. 

  7. Oxford English Dictionary, at scow n.2:

    1.a. A large flat-bottomed lighter or punt.

  8. Oxford English Dictionary at Gal­wegian adj. and n.:

    Forms: Also Gallo­wegian.[…] Etymology: < Gallo­way, on the analogy of Norro­way, Nor­way, Nor­wegian. See Gallo­vidian adj. and n.

  9. Oxford English Dictionary at Gallo­vidian adj. and n.:

    Etymology: < medieval Latin Gallo­vidia + ‑an suffix. Gallo­vidia (also Gallo­weithia, Gal­weia, etc.) is a Latin form of Welsh Gall­wyddel = Irish Gall-gaidhil, lit. ‘foreign Gaels’, now Gallo­way, a district in the SW. of Scot­land (the shires of Wig­ton and Kirk­cud­bright).

  10. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public domain 🅮). 

  11. Thebottleimp.org.uk in Gaelic Place-Names: ‘Gall’:

    Indeed the modern Gaelic name for Gallo­way is Gall-Ghaidhea­laibh ‘among the foreign Gaels’.

  12. Edit, 9th May, 2020:

    I have received a comment from Nìall Beag, which has made me rethink this etymology. You can read his detailed comment from 26th January, 2020 in the comment section of the second part of this post.

    In short, it is very likely that natural sound changes caused ‑vidian to become ‑wegian. The difference between v and w hasn’t always been as clear in English as it is today, and Latin v was originally pronounced w, so those letters and their sounds are often used interchangeably. We already saw this with Nor­vegiaNor­wegian.

    Next, the vowel i in modern English is usually read as the short vowel of bit [bɪt], but in this context it was probably pronounced more like the long vowel of machine [məˈʃiːn]. So it is not odd that it would be respelled with an e to denote this sound.

    And then we only have the d left. It is not uncommon for a d to become the [d͡ʒ] sound of ‑wegian in certain contexts. For example, before a y, as can be heard when the phrase ‘Would you?’ becomes ‘Woodja?’. And in fact, there are multiple examples of final unstressed ‑dian becoming ‑jun [d͡ʒən] in informal English. The word Cajun [ˈkeɪd͡ʒən] comes from Acadian (Wiktionary), injun from Indian (Wiktionary), and theres even the word Canajun as a form of Canadian (Lexico). 

  13. Wiktionary.org at Gal­wegian n.:

    2. Someone from Gal­way. Synonyms: Galway­man (male), Galway­woman (female).

  14. Source: Logainm.ie

  15. Hardi­man’s History of Gal­way:

    In pro­cess of time the word Gal-iva, was altered into Gal-via, the literal trans­lation of which, Gal-way, first occurs about the year 1440, and from that time, it has re­mained uni­form and un­changed, by any variation to the present day.

  16. I haven’t been able to find this in a dictionary, but see, for example, Connacht Tribune (2 Oct. 2015) ‘Wegians pay the price for failing to take their chances

  17. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Public domain 🅮). 

  18. Place Names: High­lands & Is­lands of Scot­land (1922) by Alexander MacBain, p. 116:

    Storno­way—which is spelt in thir­teen different ways—has been referred by Captain Thomas to Stjörnu-vágr, Star’s-voe; where Stjarna, Star, is a proper name. […] This derivation of the Captain’s is unsatis­factory. The root of the word clearly is Stjörn, steering, the ö of which is stable, and does not change to a. Storno­way, we take it, means ‘Steerage-bay’.

    Stjörn here is another spelling of stjórn

  19. Source: Ainmean-aite.scot

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