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Mirror mirror on the wall, what is the ugliest word of all

A few weeks ago, the Department of Humanities at the University of Iceland launched a contest to find the most beautiful word in the Icelandic language. [And in case you’re experiencing a deja vu moment right now – yes, this is something that is periodically done here in the Land of the Nice. We Icelanders just can’t get enough of celebrating our mother tongue.]

building site Icelandic Studies building

The ugly hole where the winner will be announced

Everyone was invited to submit their favourite word, and a special jury then went through them and chose a selection of words that were nominated from three separate age groups. People could then vote on those, until the word with the highest number of votes won.

The results are now in, and according to this survey-slash-competition, the most beautiful word in the Icelandic language is … [drumroll] … ljósmóðir.

Ljósmóðir, literally translated, means “light-mother”, and is the Icelandic word for midwife. I should mention that it consistently ranks high in these competitions, and if you follow the link above, you’ll see that that word won in the little survey run back in 2007, as well.

The two runners-up were hugfanginn, which literally means “mind-captured” and is the Icelandic word for enraptured, and bergmál, literally “rock-speak”, the Icelandic word for echo.

I should note that these lose massively in the translation, and in fact it is impossible to get across the nuances of each word in another language, as you probably know.


Even more interesting, in my opinion, is a similar competition launched on Facebook by two guys, evidently as a lark, to find the ugliest word in the Icelandic language.* A respectable 630 words were nominated, from which they have now picked fifteen. They are posted on their Facebook page, and the one with the most “likes” wins. These include some absolute gems, like geirvarta, the word for nipple, composed of the two words geir [could be a man’s name, but is probably the old word for spear] and wart, líkþorn, the word for corn [i.e. on your skin] that literally translated means “corpse-dry”, and ófrísk, the word for pregnant, literally meaning “not-healthy”.

The winner – the person who nominated the ugliest word – will be awarded a specially ugly prize down in the massive hole that is the abandoned building site of the new Icelandic Studies building at the University of Iceland – abandoned because the new government has decided to halt its construction [because they have far too many other things to do with the nation’s money, like giving it to their rich friends]. A fitting location if there ever was one, given that it is a particularly ugly hole.

The announcement will be made on November 16, the official Day of the Icelandic Language, though presumably anyone will be able to see which word gets the most votes on the Ugliest Word Facebook page.

* Have I mentioned that I have a soft spot for rebels?

[pic from here]



Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Katharine Kroeber November 13, 2013, 5:02 pm

    1. I love your language (not that I understand any of it)
    2. Huzzah! I’d been wondering what the loveliest word was.
    3. Go, rebels!
    4. My GOD that is an ugly hole.
    I could think of some people who could be more useful being shoved in said hole than in their current positions…

  • Christian Luijten November 13, 2013, 7:01 pm

    Ha! Funny that apparantly we share the word for corn; likdoorn is the Dutch translation and I had no idea why one would lick (likken translates to to lick) their thorn. I guess it should have been lijkdoorn.

  • Vick Sawe November 14, 2013, 9:30 pm

    Leichdorn/Huehnerauge in German and Liktorn in Swedish, liekdoorn etc etc, a body thorn makes more sense to me than a corpse-dry, because etymologically it fits with all the other languages. But I’m no Icelandic expert. I wonder if lichþorn/licþorn was an old English word?

  • Biskupinn November 16, 2013, 8:08 pm

    I may respectfully challenge your translation of ‘ófrisk’. I always directly translate it as ‘un-frisky’. ‘Frisky’ seems to be a good word because it sounds like the Icelandic ‘frísk’ (and appears to be related) and because it’s a euphemism for being horny.