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Going Berserk with a capital ‘B’

Q: I was reading an old Mary Roberts Rinehart mystery, The Circular Staircase, when my eyes fell upon this passage: “I had gone Berserk, I think. I leaned over the stair-rail and fired again.” Why is “Berserk” capitalized?

A: The word used to be capitalized in English because it was originally a proper noun. The “Berserks” were legendary Norse warriors who went into battle in a wild, murderous frenzy, according to Scandinavian mythology.

The novel you mention was published in 1908, over a century ago, and “berserk” was often capitalized in those days.

The word came into English as a noun in the early 19th century, but by the late 1800s, it had become an adjective, as it is in that quotation (“I had gone Berserk”).

English acquired “berserk” from Old Icelandic, where berserkr is a singular noun, berserker the plural, and berserk the accusative (the form used for a direct object), according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

Sir Walter Scott introduced the word into English in 1814 as “Berserkar,” the singular noun for the warrior, and “Berserkir,” the plural. (Later, Scott used “Berserkars” for the plural, and other 19th-century authors shortened these nouns to “Berserk” and “Berserks.”)

In an article summarizing the Eyrbyggja Saga, a 13th-century work in Old Icelandic, Scott describes the warriors this way:

“Berserkir, men who, by moral or physical excitation of some kind or other, were wont to work themselves into a state of frenzy, during which they achieved deeds passing human strength, and rushed, without sense of danger or feeling of pain, upon every species of danger that could be opposed to them.”

The article (published in the anthology Illustrations of Northern Antiquities, Vol. I) uses both the singular (“a haughty, fiery, and robust damsel, well qualified to captivate the heart of a Berserkar”) and the plural (“the two Berserkir”) several times.

The OED cites Gudbrand Vigfusson and Johan Fritzner, Old Norse and Old Icelandic scholars, as saying the original meaning of “berserk” was probably bear-shirt or bear-coat.

(In Old Icelandic and Old Norse, serkr means “coat” or “shirt”; it’s a cousin of an obsolete English word for a shirt, “sark.”)

Some etymologists have disagreed with this explanation, arguing that the ber– element in Icelandic was for “bare,” not “bear,” suggesting that the warriors went into battle without any armor, either bare-chested or wearing only their shirts.

Scott himself probably contributed to this belief. In his novel The Pirate (1822), he mentions “those ancient champions, those Berserkars,” and in a note to the 1831 edition explains that they were “so called from fighting without armour.”

We may never know which etymology is correct. What we do know is that the Berserks showed up in many of the medieval Icelandic and Norse narratives, from the 9th century onwards, that describe events in ancient Scandinavian mythology.

This line from a 9th-century Old Norse poem by Thornbjorn Hornklofi is one of the earliest known examples in writing: “Grenjuðu berserkir, guðr vas þeim á sinnum” (“Berserks bellowed; battle was under way for them”).

The OED defines the noun “berserk” as “a wild Norse warrior of great strength and ferocious courage, who fought on the battle-field with a frenzied fury known as the ‘berserker rage’; often a lawless bravo or freebooter.”

Today, Oxford adds, the word is used as an adjective meaning “frenzied, furiously or madly violent,” and it’s commonly found in the phrase “to go berserk.”

In addition to Scott, the OED cites a few other 19th-century authors who used long forms of the word: “Berserkers” (1837), “Berserkir-rage” (1839), and “bersarkar” (in the singular, 1861). Still later, the nouns “Berserk” and “Berserks” appeared.

The dictionary’s earliest use of the short form “berserk” is also its earliest use of the adjective. It’s from Charles Kingsley’s novel Yeast (1851): “Yelling, like Berserk fiends, among the frowning tombstones.”

Perhaps “berserk” was a household word with the Kingsleys. Charles’s younger brother, Henry Kingsley, used the adjective in his novel Silcote of Silcotes (1867): “With her kindly, uncontrollable vivacity, in the brisk winter air she became more ‘berserk’ as she went on.”

In many later appearances the adjective was still being capitalized, as in this OED example: “He … was filled with a Berserk rage and thirst for retribution.” (From James Hannington, First Bishop of Eastern Equatorial Africa, a biography written in 1886 by Edwin C. Dawson and published in 1887.)

In searches of historical newspaper databases, we found instances of “became Berserk” (1867) and “turn Berserk” (1877), but none with forms of the verb “go” until the 1890s.

The earliest example we’ve found (“going berserk”) is from the April 6, 1894, issue of the Aspen (CO) Daily Times:

“He never had the gold or diamond or colonial fever; instead of going berserk, he evidently preferred a frock coat and patent leathers.” (From an anonymous short story, “The Panic.” Though the story is credited to the London Illustrated News, we failed to find it there.)

The following year this example appeared in “The Child of Calamity,” a short story by Rudyard Kipling: “Then he went Berserk before our amazed eyes.”

(The story was published in March and April 1895 in several newspapers in Australia and the US. The Idler, a British magazine, published it under a different title, “My Sunday at Home,” in April 1895.)

We also found many uses of “go” plus “berserk” in newspapers published in the early 1900s. Note the differing capitalization styles:

“It would be dangerous to allow the smaller settlers to go berserk before the board, and meet the serried ranks of officialdom.” (The Sydney Morning Herald, Aug. 15, 1905.)

“We knew him as a dashing and fearless old campaigner, one who had gone Berserk many a time to rescue the gallant Lat Sahib he fought under.” (This passage appeared in another Australian newspaper, the Register, Adelaide, on Oct. 14, 1905. It’s from a serialized novel, Tales of Sahib Land, by the Anglo-Indian writer F. D’A. C. De L’Isle.)

We found many other pre-World War I examples illustrating the different capitalization styles, including “go Berserk” (1908), “went ‘berserk’ ” (1908), “went Berserk” (1909), and so on.

Even during WWI, some authors were still capitalizing the word, as in this OED example from Rudyard Kipling’s novel A Diversity of Creatures (1917):

“ ‘You went Berserk. I’ve read all about it in Hypatia.’ ” (Kipling is apparently referring to Charles Kingsley’s novel about Hypatia, a philosopher in Alexandria, Egypt, in the late 4th and early 5th centuries. We haven’t found “berserk” in the novel, though Kingsley uses it in at least two others.)

Before long, however, the adjective became established in its lowercase form. The OED cites this headline from the Nov. 10, 1940, issue of the Chicago Tribune: “America goes berserk.”

The article below the headline comments upon “The recent addition of the word ‘berserk,’ as a synonym for crackpot behaviour, to the slang of the young and untutored. … American stenographers … are telling one another not to be ‘berserk.’ ”

But “berserk” was not a slang or “untutored” usage, as we’ve seen. And for generations it has continued to be used—as an adjective, lowercased, and mostly with the verb “go”—as standard English.

It has even retained its sense of violent frenzy, though the violence is milder today that it was in the days of the Vikings.

In tribute to the old sagas, we’ll conclude with a passage from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem “The Skeleton in Armor” (1842):

Many a wassail-bout
Wore the long Winter out;
Often our midnight shout
   Set the cocks crowing,
As we the Berserk’s tale
Measured in cups of ale,
Draining the oaken pail,
   Filled to o’erflowing.

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