Berserk: A Common Word with Questionable Beginnings

Berserk is a common word but it's one that's often mispronounced and thus misspelled. The true pronunciation is straightforward: b… �r-�s… �rk. But it's commonly pronounced as b… �-�s… �rk, which is incorrectly spelled as beserk. A Google search for beserk leads you to an Australian alternative clothing site, but not to the correct word. However, these basic mechanics aren't the only aspects of berserk that cause confusion.

A berserker pictured with Odin.

The Oxford Royale Academy declared it one of the 14 words with the most fascinating origins in the English language. Berserk originally meant  "Norse warrior". This definition started around 1844 as an alternative word for berserker. Berserkers were warriors who fought with superhuman strength and frenzied, uncontrollable force. They were savage attackers. Clothed in animal skins, they ravaged the small communities that hosted them. Berserker is a very literal description of these men. In Old Norse language, ber- meant  "bear" and serkr- meant  "shirt" or  "skin". Thus, berserker translated to  "warrior clothed in bearskin". Some texts interpreted it as a warrior who fought without proper armor.

Interestingly, the existence of berserkers was questioned over time. BBC History Magazine explored the issue in a 2016 investigative piece. Writer Emma Mason studied both berserkers and wolfksins. Wolfskins were equally savage warriors who often fought alongside berserkers. Some texts used berserker and wolfskin interchangeably, while others clearly differentiated between the two.

This marginal illumination from the Saga of Saint Olaf shows his death at the battle of Stiklestad in 1030. (Photo by Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images)

Additionally, berserkers were often mentioned in literature but not historic record. Poems, sagas, and other texts described them as brutes and villains. But no official government documents detailed their impact on society. For years, berserk's origins had seemed clear. But this research, both on wolfskins and Nordic literature, seemed to indicate berserkers were nothing more than a figment of writers' imaginations.

However, in her reporting, Mason uncovered two more logical explanations for berserk's origins. A priest, ‚àö ÔøΩdmann, wrote a theory about  "going berserk" in 1784. When people ate fly agaric mushrooms, they exhibited erratic behavior. It was a condition known as berserk fury, which is likely akin to a hallucinogenic trip.

Also, there was a theory that some warriors went into a hypnotic trance before battle. They practiced a set of rituals that helped them focus more on battle and strength and less on pain. They essentially zoned out as they fought their enemies. This most closely matches the modern day understanding of berserk.

Merriam-Webster defines berserk as  "one whose actions are recklessly defiant". It's a noun, though we often use it colloquially as an adjective. For example, Outside used the word to describe an ill-fated Antarctic expedition. The New York Daily News used berserk as an adjective to describe an unruly convenience store customer. And Townhall used it to describe MSNBC's Lawrence O'Donnell after video leaked of his outbursts during a taping of his show, The Last Word.

Berserk also lives on today in a most unlikely placeÔøΩ a popular Manga series. The comics actually use the word correctly. Berserk tells the story of a dark medieval society from the perspective of Guts, a mercenary who's seen his fair share of bloodshed.

Like so many words in the English language, berserk is a regularly used term but its meaning is only loosely understood. And it seems there's still plenty to learn about its origins.

Meaningful dialogue starts not at a sentence level but at a word level. The words we choose to communicate are important.

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