The Creative Exploration of Language

Monthly Archives: February 2018


Örlog has long been one of my favorite words from Old Norse.  It has that bolted-together quality that I love about compound words in the Germanic language family, but it also has an air of mystery about it.  In my opinion, it just looks interesting, even if you don’t know what it means.

But I am interested in meanings and, as it turns out, örlog means fate.  However, the relationship between the words is not direct as it so often is across languages (consider dependent, an English word derived from French and Latin roots, and its German equivalent abhängig, which is constructed in exactly the same manner: de- and ab- both mean “from”, while –pendent and –hängig both mean “hang”).  This implies that the concept of fate was different in Northern Europe as compared to the Classical world centered around the Mediterranean.

Fate ultimately comes from the Latin word fari (“to speak”) via its derivative fatum, which means “that which has been spoken”.  This fits very well with the Classical conception of fate as something has already been determined.  For example, the Fates in both Greek (the Moirai) and Roman (the Parcae) mythology are composed of three goddesses who represent the weaving, measuring and ending / cutting of the “thread” of individual human lives.  The metaphor here is that the Fates have determined what is to happen and made an irrevocable decision in relation to how it should happen.

In Norse mythology there are also three Fates, but they are called the Norns and are connected to the passage of time: Urð (past), Verðandi (present) and Skuld (future).  This metaphor seems different to me: the Norns don’t determine what is to happen or how it should happen, they simply describe how the world works.

A breakdown of Örlog supports this interpretation of the Norse conception of fate.  It is composed of two separate words:

ör– this means “primal” and is cognate with the modern prefix ur- which is found in modern German and, to a lesser extent, English.

log– this means “law” (final “g” in Old Norse tends to turn to “w” in English, as in the Old Norse word útlag, which means outlaw in English).

So, örlog is a “primal law”.  Rather than fate being seen as something that has been determined, the product of a process, as in the Classical conception, the Old Norse word implies that the ancient Scandinavians saw fate a force that drove a continuous process which can be summed up as: life.

In other words, to the Norse, the world just works the way it works and events aren’t foreordained, but rather continuously created according to unalterable laws.