Sometimes it just takes one word to send you off on a linguistic journey – in this case it led me to the origins of the English word odd, which of course has something to do with Icelandic as well 🙂

What actually started this whole thing was the word oddbrotinn – I came across it while reading a short story (smásaga) called Hylurinn in the book Gula húsið, by Gyrðir Elíasson. I really like the stories in this collection that I’ve read so far, and they truly are short stories, maybe 3-5 pages each, which is perfect for someone learning the language. Trying to read an entire novel can be daunting, but a short story can be worked through in a couple of hours. The prose is also not too difficult, so if you’re an intermediate student like me looking for a new challenge, I can recommend this book or another of his collections of short stories, Milli trjánna.

The story Hylurinn is about a father and son who are fishing in a river. The father is actually using a spear, throwing it into the deep part of the river (hylur) trying to spear a fish. The passage was:

“Maðurinn horfði áfram út í hylinn. Svo skaut hann í þriðja sinn. Broddstafurinn lenti á steininum. Þegar hann dró stafinn upp var hann oddbrotinn.”

“The man looked out at the spot in the river. Then he threw for a third time. The spear landed in the rocks. When he pulled the staff out the spear tip was broken off.”

I knew brotinn meant that something was broken, but I wasn’t sure what odd meant. I found the word oddur:

oddur (m) – point (of a sharp object)
singular plural
nom oddur oddar
acc odd odda
dat oddi oddum
gen odds odda

The word broddstafur had come earlier in the story, but I hadn’t looked it up yet, figuring it was a staff of some sort; it turns out that one meaning for broddur is similar to oddur (point, spike). Another meaning of broddstafur is a letter with an accent on it (á, é), but context should rarely make this confusing 🙂

Some other Icelandic words that incorporate this idea of a point are

oddi (m) – spit of land, point
singular plural
nom oddi oddar
acc odda odda
dat odda oddum
gen odda odda
odd·bogi (m) – Gothic arch
singular plural
nom oddbogi oddbogar
acc oddboga oddboga
dat oddboga oddbogum
gen oddboga oddboga

The word bogi means arc or curve, so combining it with odd give the word for a Gothic arch, which has a point-like shape:


There is also the adjective odd·mjór, which means pointed. By itself, mjór means thin or narrow, so it’s interesting to see how the meaning changes with the prefix.

A more abstract idea related to point would be that of head or primary; prominence . This seems to be the idea in the word odd·viti, a chairman or representative.

So in looking up the meaning of odd- in an Icelandic word, I found its relation to the English word odd, which has a long history going back through Old Norse, Old English and even Old High German, and probably whatever came before that. According to various dictionaries, the origin is:

“Middle English odde, from Old Norse oddi point of land, triangle, odd number; Old English ord point of a weapon; Old High German ort point, place”

I’ve only dabbled in Old English (Anglo-Saxon), but the ties it shares with Old Norse are immediately recognizable, and for a speaker of English it makes learning Icelandic even more fascinating 🙂