Gushing like a “geyser”: modern loan, old faithful

“An intermittent hot spring, throwing up water, etc. in a fountain-like column.” No, this isn’t a description of how a lot of Brits are feeling, still queasy from Brexit, after their team’s knockout loss to Iceland in the Euro football tournament last night. It’s the Oxford English Dictionary’s definition of the word geyser, one of the few modern words English borrowed from Icelandic.

erupting_geysir
Gushing with tears or cheers? Depends on who you were rooting for. “The erupting Great Geysir.” (c) 2000 by Dieter Schweizer.  

Geyser

“Modern” is key to the history of geyser. From the late 700s to the early 1000s, the Vikings, whose Old Norse tongue was ultimately parent to the Icelandic language, invaded the British Isles – and their native tongues, leaving its mark in everyday words like sky, egg, knife, and they. But geyser is a much more recent loanword.

In 1763, Britain’s long-running Annual Register included this account: “Geyser, a wonderful spring in the valley of Haukedal, is but a few miles from Skaalholt.” The entry goes on to describe the “terrible noise, like the discharge of small arms” of the “surprising phenomenon” which “happens once a day.” It credits its description to a Mr. Olav, who encountered it in 1746.

This geyser is Geysir, the proper name of a particular geyser, the country’s own Old Faithful, in the Haukadalur valley in southwest Iceland. English generalized the term for this geological feature by 1780. Come the 1850s, English was using geyser for figurative gushes.

And “gush” is key to the etymology of Geysir. The name literally means “The Gusher,” related to the Icelandic geysa and Old Norse gøysa, “to gush.” (Old Icelandic had gjós-æðr, a “gush vein,” or “artery.”) English’s gush is cognate, as is gust, gut, font, funnel, various iterations of the Latin root in infuse, and, incredibly, futile. The Indo-European root is *gheu-, “to pour.” The American Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Roots notes that some scholars think this “pour” was in reference to libations, which could make it the long-troubling source of the word god.

In today’s Icelandic, a geyser is a goshver, which looks like gusher. But as far as I can tell, this word actually joins gos (“eruption”; an eldgos is a “volcanic eruption,” or “fire eruption”) and hver, a term for a “hot spring” that originally meant “kettle” or “cauldron.”

In a land of so much geothermal activity, there are subtle but important distinctions between different types of geysers based on temperature. According to Richard S. William’s Icelandic-English Glossary of Selected Geoscience Terms, hverir are hot springs over 70ºC, laugar are warm springs between 30-70ºC, and volgrur are lukewarm springs under 30ºC.

Today though, Iceland should forget such distinctions and celebrate their historic performance in the UEFA Euro 2016 with the full force of their country’s own Great Geysir.

m ∫ r ∫ 

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3 thoughts on “Gushing like a “geyser”: modern loan, old faithful

  1. I was trying to think of what English synonyms we would have to fall back on if “geyser” had never came into the language from Icelandic and I couldn’t really think of any other than a very generic ‘hot spring’ or a descriptive ‘gusher’. I was having a look whether other languages that had also borrowed ‘geyser’ also had native synonyms such as in Greek: θερμοπίδακας (thermopídakas) from θερμός ‎(thermós “hot”) and‎ πίδακας ‎(pídakas “fountain”); Hungarian: szökőforrás (“soaring hot spring”); German: Springquelle; Breton: gourstivell (gushing fountain); Turkish: kaynaç and ironically the ‘goshver’ of Icelandic itself. It was a word for ‘geyser’ in Maori: ngāwhā that pointed me to an English geothermal synonym I’d never heard before, “fumarole” (via Italian, ultimately from Latin fumus ” smoke”) an opening in a planet’s crust, often in the vicinity of volcanoes that emits steam and gases.

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    1. Interesting thought. I suspect your hunch is correct: a native term would have formed along the lines of ‘gusher’ or a compound resembling the Germanic ‘Springquelle’ (cf. history of ‘earthquake’). Concerning ‘fumarole’: lovely hodgepodge of words in the geologic lexicon!

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