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Vi är alla utsocknes

First let me say I’m only goofing around with this. Having fun. By no means is any statement intended, political or otherwise. But it started yesterday after I’d come upon a news article reporting that during an interview, Chelsea Clinton, 39, expressed what seems to be a firmly held belief of hers having to do with, hmm, well that’s not important. The point is that the moment I read what she had to say, the six-foot three-inch tall invisible rabbit from the 1950 Jimmy Stewart movie “Harvey” immediately popped into mind. I checked Wikipedia to see if I could get the “point” of that movie. I’m not sure I found it but (this is a side-track, I admit) I did find a quote I thought was interesting:

“Years ago my mother used to say to me, she'd say…'In this world, Elwood, you must be oh so smart or oh so pleasant.' Well, for years I was smart. I recommend pleasant. You may quote me.”

What distracted me really, though, was reading that Harvey the rabbit was a “pooka”. I immediately thought “WHAT?” and went off looking to see what I could find out what pookas were. Turns out the word has either a Celtic or Old Norse origin, and among other things is where Shakespeare came up with his “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” Puck character. The Old Norse (and apparently modern Icelandic) word is“puki” (or maybe púkinn) and seems to translate into both English and Swedish as “daemon”. But it means basically “a ghosty thing that likes to live out in the woods or maybe in lakes or other weird places like that”.

I’ll go out on a limb and say that the Swedish character Näcken is a pooka. The thing that got me (and what gets back to how we’re all utsocknes) was somewhere coming across the assertion that Tomten himself was a pooka.

For years I’ve been annoyed that Tomte’s name was the same as “a measured parcel of land”. And I’ve been further irritated that “tom” and “tömma” are about being “empty”. Nordstedt’s says “tom” comes from Old Swedish “tomber”, in turn coming from German but beyond that “of uncertain origin”. However, at least one English etymologist thinks there is a connection between the English word “tomb” and something that’s pre-Greek. “Tumulus”, he says, means “earth-hill”.

All right. So I’ve got at least a weak connection between “tomt” and “plot of earth”. But how does it relate to “empty”?

I don’t know. But I think it’s a good bet that when the hunter-gatherers and primitive farmers first started showing up in Scandinavia that the whole place was one massive skog (“fornsvenska “skogher”; …’det som skjuter upp; det som sticker fram’; besläktat med “skägg”).

Probably that to put up even a simple hut, somebody would first have to chop down a bunch of trees to make enough room for it. Certainly you’d have to do that if you wanted to build a house or grow crops. So maybe “en tomt” was “a place in the woods that had been emptied of trees”. Nordstedt’s says “tomt” is probably related to the Greek word “dap’edon”. Bah I say! (Actually I don’t think I’ve ever said “Bah!” once in my life. Maybe when pretending to be Ebenezer Scrooge. Mostly I think “Oh gimme a break.”) “Dap’edon” became “tomt”? You expect me to swallow that?

But none of this matters. The point is that tomtar are, in fact, those guys (all of them short) who originally cleared the trees from the plot of land where your house is, now. And (more contested) they still live under it. You and me and everybody else came to these places from somewhere else, is the point. Unless maybe you were born at home. But otherwise är vi alla utsocknes. None of us are tomtar at any rate. Not så vitt jag vet. I suppose it’d be fair to say I’m stretching things, since a house lot and a parish (“socken”) aren’t the same by a long shot. But like I said I’m having fun. So I don’t care. Wiktionary says “utsocknes” can be either an adjective or an adverb. But when I saw it for the first time this morning it had been used as a noun. Somebody in a local group had wanted to know in what location an old picture had been taken:

“Kan en utsocknes få veta…?” she said.

I knew what en socken was, so I knew what she was talking about. There’s a good chance of it anyway. In any case I have to say that at least thinking so was a definite rush.

SO the mysteries are all cleared out, more or less. But for good measure and while I was at it, I decided to check the etymology of “socken”. Wikipedia says it predates Christianity and was formed from “söka”. “Folk som söka sig till samma kyrka”, it says. (And by the way, it looks like plain old “sock” like the kind you put on your foot comes from a Greek or Latin word, “socc”, meaning “light shoe” or something like that. If you want to figure out where “sockER” comes from you’ll have to do it yourself. Sockerrör. Betor. Mataffären. Those are good enough for me right now. I känner mig mer än bara lite sliten. Att skriva och försöka sätta tankarna ihop gör mig trött, oavsett språk. Dessutom ska jag umgås med andra på eftermiddagen så nu är det kanske dags att hugga ner skägget. Ha det bra och tack för tålamodet.

October 18, 2019



Thomas-Steve, thanks for posting this. It was fun to read your thoughts. However, I'm afraid that I have to dispute quite a lot of your suggestions.

Obviously, characters such as Näcken and tomtar are widespread and have different regional interpretations. I would not agree that either matches the concept of pooka.

The modern - but very rare and definitely generally unknown - Swedish word is pukar (sg. puke), which is essentially synonymous with the better known smådjävlar: literally "small demons". Näcken, in contrast, is a kind of water spirit common to all Germanic folklore in different variations, and tomte is an entirely different creature which could not be confused with devils.

As for tomten, the common explanation was that he was the spirit of the first inhabitant of e.g. a farmstead, who had opted to remain at his domains to oversee its future. Of course, that's just the gårdstomte. There are loads of miscellaneous tomtar, with various functions and regional interpretations.

This also explains why he's cognate with tomt in the meaning of "site" or "lot" - tomte is short for tomtenisse, with nisse being an original name for the creature. So, basically "the nisse of the site", which then eventually changed into the first part of the word instead.

As for tomt, it is likely derived from an older word for "community", meaning that it was the site where the community gathered or lived. From there, it evolved into its modern meaning. It likely has no connection to tom (empty) at all, and neither is connected to the English "tomb" which has romance roots from a separate origin.

socken is largely correct, though. English has a direct cognate in the very uncommon "soken", which was a district in a medieval legal system. A good modern translation is "parish". It is indeed derived from older words meaning to seek, to inquire - especially in legal matters.


There is another pooka in Flann O'Brien's At swim two birds, which I recommend. I think the word is more likely Celtic than Norse, having made its way into Welsh (pwca). There are a number of Irish loans in Icelandic, remarkably few Old Norse loans even in Irish , and the Vikings were far more of a presence in Ireland than in Wales.

"Soccer" is supposedly short for "asSOCiation football".


Yes, the etymology of púca/pwca is unclear and debated. It could also very well be related but not inherited, considering that all of these languages are Indo-European.

"soccer" is definitely like you say. It's to separate it from rugby football, which was similarly called "rugger" at one point.


On the other hand, few old Scandinavian words begin with P; Grimm's law and all that.


Yes, that is true.

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