(n.) a journey that ultimately ends in disappointment
In 1850, a fisherman named Walter Sutherland passed away at his home in Skaw, the northernmost village on the northernmost island, Unst, in the northernmost group of islands, Shetland, in the whole of the British Isles. (Popular history would also have you believe that Sutherland’s cottage was the northernmost home in the village—which, if true, would make it the most northerly house in Britain.)
Thanks in part to the extraordinary isolation in which he lived, Sutherland is credited with being the last surviving native speaker of Norn, a curious Scandinavian-origin language that developed in the far north of Scotland after it was settled by Norse explorers in the ninth century. Use of Norn dwindled after ownership and control of Shetland (as well as nearby Orkney and Caithness) shifted from Norway to Scotland in the late Middle Ages. In its place, the Scots language steadily advanced to become the islands’ dominant tongue.
That process proved a slow one, however: a handful of Shetland Islanders with at least some knowledge of Norn are said to have survived into the early 1900s. But Sutherland was nevertheless the language’s last fully fluent native speaker, so when he died in 1850, Norn was officially declared extinct.
Happily, some nineteenth century scholars had the foresight to record a great deal of Norn vocabulary before it was lost. It is thanks to them that we know about such extraordinary words as gumplefeck (‘a state of restlessness’), skindoger (‘a distant flash of lightning, or rumble of thunder’), drylla-skovie (a local nickname for the otter, which essentially means ‘lazy tail-dragger’), and himmelsferd.
An amalgam of himmel, meaning ‘heaven’, and ferd, meaning ‘journey’ or ‘travel’, himmelsferd quite literally means an ascension, or a ‘journey to heaven’. According to the Scottish National Dictionary, however, more often than not himmelsferd was applied ironically to in fact refer to a journey that, far from ending in paradise, proved fruitless or ended in disappointment.
Quite why the word should have come to be used so paradoxically is unclear. Given that some Norn dictionaries suggest the word could be used idiomatically to refer to the hustling, bustling behaviour of people in a hurry, perhaps this became merely a barbed comment on their busybody behaviour. Or, given that folklore in the Shetland Islands once claimed that it was unlucky to save a fisherman who was drowning at sea, perhaps there is meant to be some reference here to luckless sailors heading out into serene open seas, only to encounter storms and rougher waters and finding their journey fatally frustrated.