Göróttur er drykkurinn

Fornmálsorð í nútímabúningi

  • Haraldur Bernharðsson


This paper discusses the history of the adjective appearing in Modern Icelandic as göróttur ‘poisonous, hazardous, contaminated’ (especially of beverages). Only two instances of this word are on record in Old Icelandic, both in the narrative describing the death of Sinfjotli, the son of Sigmundr Volsungsson. Borghildr, Sinfjotli’s stepmother, offers Sinfjotli a poisonous drink. Sinfjotli looks into the drinking horn and says to Sigmundr, his father: “This drink is göróttr, father.” (For now the word is rendered with the root gör- as in Modern Icelandic.) Sigmundr pays little attention to Sinfjotli’s words of suspicion, and in the end Sinfjotli drains the horn and suffers immediate death. This narrative is preserved in Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda, GKS 2365 4to, and (in a somewhat longer form) in Volsunga saga. The precise meaning of the adjective göróttr in its earliest occurrences is not altogether clear, as is apparent from the differing explanations found in some of the standard dictionaries; nor do we have a firm understanding of its etymology or phonological shape at the earliest stage of Old Icelandic, as is evident from the various forms the word assumes in the different print editions, including “gjƒróttr”, “gøróttr”, “gjöróttr”, and “göróttr”. In this paper, therefore, an attempt is made to find an answer to the following questions: (1) a. What is the meaning of the adjective göróttr in its earliest attestations? b. What was its form at the earliest stage of Old Icelandic? c. What is its etymology? d. What is its history from Old Icelandic to Modern Icelandic? As is discussed in section 2, the standard dictionaries offer two interpretations of the adjective göróttr in the account of Sinfjƒtli’s death in the Poetic Edda and Vƒlsunga saga: ‘cloudy, muddy’ or ‘poisonous’. The longer description of this event in Vƒlsunga saga contains Sinfjƒtli’s reactions to the three drinking horns offered to him by Borghildr. Upon receiving the first horn, Sinfjƒtli uses the word göróttr to describe its content; for the second horn he uses the adjective flærðr ‘deceptive’, and when Borg hildr hands him the third drinking horn, Sinfjƒtli declares: Eitr er í drykknum ‘there is poison in the drink’. Assuming that the three drinking horns offered to Sinfjƒtli all contain the same (or a similar) beverage, it is argued that the two adjectives Sinfjƒtli uses to describe the beverage, göróttr and flærðr, are closely related semantically. Thus, göróttr could be taken to mean ‘deceptive’, which is also the established meaning of flærðr. The two earliest occurrences of the adjective göróttr are “giorotr” in Codex Regius, GKS 2365 4to (26v28), from around 1270, and “giorottr” in NKS 1824 b 4to (13v16), the principal manuscript of Vƒlsunga saga, dated to around 1400–1425. As discussed in section 3, both manuscripts postdate the phonological merger + ø > ö in the early 13th century; their orthography cannot, therefore, provide any information as to whether the word in question contained the root vowel or ø at the earliest stage of Old Icelandic. The spelling with “gio” in both manuscripts, on the other hand, is of great importance. It suggests that the word contained the sequence gjö- (after the merger + ø > ö), not gö-, in the language of the scribes. The sequence gjö- is of twofold origin, from earlier gø- or gj- (not g-). The scribe of NKS 1824 b 4to does not distinguish original gø- and gj- (indicating both sequences with “gi” before an appropriate vowel symbol), but the orthography of Codex Regius, probably a little more than a century older than NKS 1824 b 4to, shows an important distinction, since the palatalization of g, resulting from the earlier front vowel ø (by then ö), is not represented orthographically (that is, before ö from earlier ø, g is spelled “g” instead of “gi”). As a rule, the scribe of Codex Regius denotes original gø- with “g” before a vowel symbol, while “gi” before an appropriate vowel symbol is the regular spelling of original gj-. It is, therefore, clear that in the orthography of Codex Regius of the Poetic Edda, “giorotr” (26v28) would be the typical representation of earlier gjróttr, but not of gøróttr, much less gróttr. Based on this evidence, it is concluded in section 3 that the Modern Icelandic adjective göróttur can with overwhelming likelihood be reconstructed as gjróttr (but not gøróttr or gróttr) for the earliest stage of Old Icelandic. The adjective gjróttr, containing the derivational suffix -ótt-, must be based on a substantive with the root gjar- or gjr-. As discussed in section 4, which is devoted to the identification of this base word and its origin, the standard dictionaries cite a neuter substantive gjör, ger that could originate in either gør or gjr in the earliest Old Icelandic; the shape of the root excludes the former as the possible base for gjróttr, but from a morphological point of view the latter could be the base. This depends, however, on the semantics of gjör, ger, which remain somewhat obscure. The word appears in stanza 9 (or 10) of Egill Skallagrímsson’s Hƒfuðlausn, in Merlínusspá, and in Konungs skuggsjá; in all three instances it could mean ‘food’ and in the last example also ‘(food as) bait’. Based on comparison with the cognate Faroese gjar ‘small crayfish used as bait’, Old Icelandic adjective gerr ‘greedy’ and other (early) Germanic words meaning, for instance, ‘greedy’, ‘the greedy one’, and ‘greed’, it is argued that gjör, ger originally meant ‘something desirable, to be coveted’, from which the meaning ‘food’ and, importantly, ‘(food as) bait’ developed. Assuming that the meaning of the adjective gjróttr can be reconstructed as ‘deceptive, containing bait’, it could be derived from the base word gjör (or gjar), which consequently must have been gjör, not gør, at the earliest stage of Old Icelandic.

The adjective gjöróttr would have yielded gjöróttur in Modern Icelandic by regular phonological development; gjöróttur, however, is not attested in Modern Icelandic. Instead there is the adjective göróttur ‘poisonous, hazardous, contaminated’ (especially of beverages), which cannot be a direct descendant of Old Icelandic gjróttr. The earliest instances of göróttur on record date to the late 19th century, while gjöróttur (from earlier gjöróttr) appears to have become extinct (though it is difficult to determine precisely when this happened). It is argued in section 5 that Old Icelandic gjöróttr was revived as göróttur in the late 19th century, based on print editions of Old Icelandic texts in which gjróttr appears as “gøróttr”. The orthographic form “gøróttr” was interpreted as containing a velar g (since it was, quite understandably, not immediately clear to all 19th-century readers that g was palatalized before the front vowel ø in Old Icelandic), which gave rise to the Modern Icelandic word göróttur—a late borrowing from Old Icelandic.