Chimneys and pillowcases in Swedish: Weird Swedish compounds Posted by Stephen Maconi on Jul 13, 2016 in History, Swedish Language, Vocabulary
Swedish, like a lot of languages, has many words in its vocabulary which make sense as a whole but not as parts. In many cases, this is because the original meaning has been wiped out over time.
In English, we have the word “highlight”. When we use this word, we aren’t referring to a light which is high. We are referring to an important point in an article, or if used as a verb, we are referring to using a fluorescent pen to bring out an important string of text from a page. Another interesting example is “greenhouse”, which doesn’t refer to a house which is green. Words like this have varying degrees of dissectibility – from “greenhouse”, someone who doesn’t know English well might have an easier time guessing the meaning than that of “highlight”.
Swedish has no shortage of these kinds of words either. Take skorsten “chimney” for example. Skor, if you ask any modern-day Swede, means “shoes”, and sten means “stone”. “Shoes-stone”? That doesn’t make sense at all. Well, the truth is that skor- is believed by language scholars to be an outdated word for “support”, and skorsten is therefore expected to have originally referred to the stone holding up the chimney structure in contemporary homes. Eventually, the use of the word evolved into referring to the chimney itself as other words, such as eldstad “fireplace”, took its place.
Örngott is a similar case (a “pillowcase”, ho ho!). At first glance, it might look like a combination of örn meaning “eagle” and gott meaning “good”. “Eagle-good”? I think not. Örngott provides a fantastic example of what is known as synkope in linguistics. Synkope is the disappearance of a sound within a word or selection of words with the same pattern, over time. In English, for example, we have the everyday pronunciation “I dunno”, rather than the traditional “I don’t know”. What happened to all the extra sounds in “I don’t know”? Where are the “n” and “t”? They’ve disappeared over time to the point where no one looks twice if you say “I dunno” in everyday speech.
In the case of örngott, the first part, örn-, was actually originally öron-, meaning “ear”. The -o- has managed to disappear over time in this word*, and now you won’t hear a single person saying örongott anymore. As you can see, this change has gone one step further than “I dunno” – the original form örongott doesn’t even exist anymore. Thus, örngott originally meant “ear-good” – i.e. pleasant for the ears – and it has evolved to mean “pillowcase”.
(*Note: Öron as a separate word meaning “ears” is pronounced as spelt – the -o- hasn’t disappeared there!)
[Sources: Wikipedia; Ordens ursprung by Bo Bergman]