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The name Viking is a loan from the native Scandinavian term for the Norse seafaring warriors who raided the coasts of Scandinavia, the British Isles, and other parts of Europe from the late 8th century to the 11th century, the period of European history referred to as the Viking Age. The word was introduced to the English language with romantic connotations in the 18th century. Today, somewhat controversially, the word is also used as a generic adjective referring to Viking Age Scandinavians. The medieval Scandinavian population in general is more properly referred to as Norse.
The etymology of "viking" is somewhat unclear. One path might be from the Old Norse word vÝk, meaning "bay", "creek" or "inlet", and the suffix -ing, meaning "coming from" or "belonging to". Thus, viking would be an activity in creeks, or "creeking". A vikingr is a person engaged in such activity. Later on, the term viking became synonymous with "naval expedition, raid", and a vikingr was a member of such expeditions. A second etymology suggested derives from Old English wÝc, ie. "trading city", (cognate to Latin vicus, "village").
The word vikingr appears on several rune stones found in Scandinavia. In the Icelandic sagas, vÝking refers to an overseas expedition (Old Norse farar i vikingr "to go on an expedition"), and vÝkingr to a seaman or warrior taking part in such an expedition. In Old English, the word wicing appears first in the 6th or 7th century in the Anglo-Saxon poem Widsith.
In medieval use (eg. Widsith, and the writings of Adam von Bremen), a viking is a pirate, and not a name for the people or culture in general. Indeed, when Scandinavian raiders left their boats, stole horses and rode across country, they were never referred to as "vikings" in English sources.
The word disappeared in Middle English, and was reintroduced as viking during 18th century Romanticism. During the 20th century, the meaning of the term was expanded to refer not only to the raiders, but also to the entire period; it is now, somewhat confusingly, used as a noun both in the original meaning of raiders, warriors or navigators, and sometimes to refer to the Scandinavian population in general). As an adjective, the word is used in expressions like "Viking age", "Viking culture", "Viking colony" etc., generally referring to medieval Scandinavia.
During the last century, speculations began about whether foreign traders, known as varyags who had trade posts along the Russian rivers down to the Byzantine Empire were of Scandinavian origin, and since then the term has been interpreted also to refer to tradesmen from Scandinavia who established colonies in Russia. Early Scandinavian colonies in North America are also labelled as "Viking" by modern English speakers. It should be noted, however, that no written sources, in the cases of Vinland, Rus, or Varyags, use the term "Viking."
Scandinavians in general were not Vikings; they were farmers, fishers and hunters, as were most other people in Europe. As the Scandinavian shores were attacked by enemy forces, they established the defence fleet called ledung, which was also used as protection against Vikings. Though a common practice today, calling all northmen (Scandinavians) Vikings, rather than reserving the word solely for those involved in piracy, can lead to misunderstanding and confusion. As members of the ledung fleet, as well as farmers and fishers now and then attacked by Vikings, most Scandinavians probably saw Vikings as their enemies and fought against them with all their effort.
The earliest date given for a Viking raid is 789, when, according to the Anglo Saxon Chronicle, a group of men from Norway sailed to Portland, in Dorset. There, they were mistaken as merchants by a royal official, and they murdered him, when he tried to get them to accompany him to the king's manor to pay a trading tax on their goods. The next recorded attack, dated June 8, 793, was on the monastery at Lindisfarne on the east coast of England. For the next 200 years, European history is filled with tales of Vikings and their plundering.
Vikings exerted influence throughout the coastal areas of Ireland and Scotland, and conquered and colonised large parts of England (see Danelaw). They travelled up the rivers of France and Spain, and gained control of areas in Russia and along the Baltic coast. Stories tell of raids in the Mediterranean and as far east as the Caspian Sea.
Adam of Bremen records in his book Gesta Hammaburgensis Ecclesiae Pontificum, (volume four):
- Aurum ibi plurimum, quod raptu congeritur piratico. Ipsi enim piratae, 'quos illi Wichingos as appellant, nostri Ascomannos regi Danico tributum solvunt.
- "There is much gold here (in Zealand), accumulated by piracy. These pirates, which are called wichingi by their own people, and Ascomanni by our own people, pay tribute to the Danish king."
Many rune stones in Scandinavia record the names of participants in expeditions collecting Danegeld in England, and at least two rune stones mention men who died i viking, i. e. "on an expedition".
A number of rune stones also use the word viking as a personal name, e. .g "This stone was erected by Halfdan and Íystein, sons of Viking."