by Krister Vasshus
If you read through the Nordic sagas and other Nordic source material, you will find that the personal name Vífill seems to change its social status through time. In the legendary sagas, name bearers are part of the societal elite, but in later sources name bearers are at the bottom of the social ladder, such as slaves in Landnámabók. What happened?
There can be many reasons to why a particular name gets lower or higher status over time, and in most cases several factors come into play. In this case one could also argue that some of the sources are merely fiction and do not reflect true name bearers. But even if this was true, the character was still named, and it is likely that he got a name that would meet the expectations of the audience. Nomen est omen.
A Proto-Norse name
So where does the early social prestige of the name Vífill come from? We do not know. The etymology of the name is unclear and has been a topic of debate for many years, most recently in my article Vífill – ein etymologisk diskusjon (forthcoming). In the article I argue that the runic inscription at Veblungsnes, which reads ek irilaR wiwilan ‘I, Wiwila’s rune master’, has something to say about the status of Vifill.
The etymology of the Proto-Norse personal name Wiwila is difficult to settle but has three alternatives. It can mean 1) warrior, 2) the little/young ordained-one, or 3) the darting-one. I consider the third alternative to be unlikely, as we don’t have other personal names with this meaning, whereas we have several names that are parallel to meaning one and two, which also fits well into Iron Age and Viking Age ideology.
Two names merging into one
The Old Norse Vífill, however, is homonymous with the noun vífill ‘beetle, weevil’. During the Proto-Norse period, the word for beetle would have sounded different from the name found in the Veblungsnes inscription, and the two also had different grammar endings. So, in the early days there would be no confusion between the two.
Perhaps the people from the legendary sagas whose names are recorded as Vífill, lived (or were invented as characters) during the Proto-Norse period, and were actually named Wiwila in their time. As Proto-Norse changed through time, the pronunciation of both the name Wiwila and the word for beetle changed and became more similar to one another, and I propose that vífill “won” this battle.
As soon as the name had become so associated with the weevil that it was pronounced identically to the beetle-word, it fell out of favour by the social elite. But because it stayed in use as names or nicknames for slaves and probably others, it didn’t disappear as a name entirely until much later.
Through the chances of convergent language change and some corruption (the weevil-word affecting the perception of the name Wiwila-name), the social status of the name changed, and in reality it became an entirely different name than its origin.
Krister Vasshus (forthcoming): “Vífill – ein etymologisk diskusjon”, in: Kultledare i fornnordisk religion: ett symposium. Ed. by Olof Sundqvist & Simon Karlin Björk.