(n.) a journey that ends in disappointment
One of the oddest (and potentially most useful) words in a while popped up on HH recently, and we thought you’d like to know a little more about himmelsferd.
As we mentioned over on Twitter, himmelsferd is a Scots dialect word: as the great Scottish National Dictionary defines it, not only is it literally a “journey to heaven,” but the word can be used allusively to refer to “a fruitless journey,” “a disappointment,” or “a tremendous to-do, or bustle.”
If you’re trying to spot where that meaning might be hidden away somewhere in the makeup of that word, you need to cast your eyes northwards. Like any number of Scots words, himmelsferd has its origins in Scandinavia.
At its root is the noun himmel, which still means “heaven” in Norwegian, Swedish, and Danish but (probably thanks to more than a little influence from German) owes its origins to the Old Norse word, himinn.
Ferd, meanwhile, is something of a curiosity. It also has its roots in an Old Norse word, ferð, which literally meant “journey” or “travel”; and, likewise, ferd remains in use in that sense in modern Norwegian.
But unlike himmel, which in the British Isles seems to have found its way only into the Scots word himmelsferd, ferd itself was adopted into Old English from Norse and soon carved out something of a niche for itself in the Anglo-Saxon vocabulary.
Originally, ferd was used to mean specifically “a military expedition” in Old English, but from there a handful of secondary senses—all isolated uniquely in English—began to emerge. So a ferd, in early Old English, was also an army or a warlike group (such a group that might embark on a ferd-like journey), while to stand or amass in ferd was to position yourself in a regimented, battle-ready arrangement. From there, ferd survived for a time in a looser sense in English, meaning simply a group of band of people, before it vanished our vocabulary altogether in the mid sixteenth century. It did, however, hang around in the dialects of the far north of Scotland.
In Scots, as well as meaning “a journey” or “period of travel”, ferd also came to be used to mean “food” or “provisions,” as well as “haste” or “rush,” while ferdmate, or ferdinmeat, came to be used of the food or similar supplies that might be needed ahead of a lengthy period of travelling. Not only that, but it found its way into the form himmelsferd—a literal “journey to heaven,” which (through no small amount of semantic jiggery-pokery) also later came to be used to describe a fruitless or ultimately disappointing effort.