No Wool, No Vikings” by Claire Eamer is an article (for Hakai magazine) about, well, wool and Vikings. It’s well worth reading (I had no idea Viking ships had woolen sails!), but this is not WoolHat, and I’m posting about it because of the following paragraph:

But first, it’s time to collect the wool. These double-coated sheep shed their wool naturally in late spring and summer, so they don’t need to be shorn. Instead, the wool is plucked, or “rooed”—a bit like pulling loosened hair from a shedding dog. Rooing is labor intensive. In Viking times and for centuries after, the whole village would join in the roundup and rooing. The captive labor force of Fosen students means rooing is still possible on Utsetøya.

Of course I looked it up in OED, and fortunately the entry has been updated (in November 2010); it’s a word local to Orkney and Shetland meaning “To strip (a sheep) of wool by hand, instead of by shearing; to pluck (wool) in this manner,” and the etymology is quite interesting:

A borrowing from Norn.
< the unattested Norn cognate of Icelandic rúa, Norwegian regional rua, both in sense ‘to pluck (wool) from a sheep’, probably representing a later denominative formation (compare Icelandic old or dirty sheep’s wool (16th cent.), Norwegian (Nynorsk) ru, (regional) ruv sheep’s wool which is shorn off at the end of the winter) < the same Scandinavian base as (with i-mutation) Old Icelandic rýja to pluck (wool) from a sheep < the same Indo-European base as classical Latin ruere to churn or plough up, dig out, Old Church Slavonic ryti, Old Russian ryti (Russian ryt′) to dig, Old Russian r′′vati (Russian rvat′) to tear, tug, pluck (compare Old Church Slavonic runo fleece, probably < the same base), Lithuanian rauti to pull, tear, root out, and probably also (with different ablaut grade) rag n.2

I’m curious as to whether my Scandinavian readers are familiar with the various ru(a) words.

Addendum. Nothing to do with rooing, but I wanted to pass on the sad news that Jeff Del Col, who usually posted here as j. del col, commenting on everything from brassicas to R. Crumb to Elias Canetti, “died very unexpectedly today at the age of 68,” as his daughter Laura wrote me; she added that “He loved reading and talking about language and literature (he was an English professor himself)” and that LH gave him a great deal of enjoyment. [Obit.] My condolences to his family; he’ll definitely be missed around these parts.


  1. There’s a Van Morrison song I Wanna Roo You, described as Scottish derivative… I don’t know that the lyrics have much to do with sheep husbandry, though.

  2. My mother tongue Dutch has a verb “rooien”, which means something like “clearing, removing all plants and roots”. Looks like it comes from the same root:

    From Swedish I know the verb “röja” or “röja undan”, which AFAICT means something like “getting sth out of the way, cleaning up by getting rid of sth”. In my limited Danish I know “rydde op”, which means “tidy, clean up”.

  3. Jeffry House says:

    It’s a stretch, but the common Norwegian word for rowing, å “ro” pronounced roo, involves delving in and pulling. The fingers through the wool might have seemed like oars through water. As a noun, though, it means only rest or tranquility as German “Ruh”.

  4. The closest in Danish seems to be the verb rue which is used of molting birds (shedding the main flight feathers and being easier to hunt). But it’s adduced to Low German rugen, connected with Standard German rauhen, to the same root as E rough. And I never encountered it before looking through the dictionary just now.

  5. Is ryamatta somehow related?

  6. Trond Engen says:

    I think I vaguely knew the noun ru)(v), but maybe only from some lingusitic discussion. I’m very familiar with a verb ry “shed (hairs); drop or let go (things, like litter or money) habitually and carelessly”. A relation to the “rough” word seems likely. There’s also Eng. ‘rug’.

  7. Hellquist 1922 derives rya from the rough root, however by way of ‘rough horse blanket’ and not ‘plucked wool’– but checking I see that rough is from the same PIE root that gave L ruere and thus roo, so it’s certainly related.

    (And D ru means ‘rough’ and is very much alive, but the connection with shed wool or dropped litter isn’t).

  8. Trond Engen says:

    Dropped litter is very much a poetic extension, not a connotation of the word itself: Han ryr søppel “He’s shedding litter like fur.” I think this usage may be particular to the Trøndelag dialect, possibly because the literal usage is more common there too.

  9. Trond Engen says:

    Two meanings. One literal, the other litteral.

  10. Rýja (rýja, rúði, rúið) means shear (v) in Icelandic. Originally it meant pluck (wool from sheep).

    It would be interesting to know what “I want to roo you” means! To strip someone of something (clothes, money)? I’m thinking of the fairly common expression “rýja inn að skinni” (“roo to the skin”), to strip/rob someone of every penny.

    Juha: I’m pretty sure rya (“a wool rug with a long pile of about 1-3 inches”) is called röggvarfeldur in Icelandic. It’s the same technique. Except the röggvarfeldur-s of old had much longer pile, something like 10 inches, and they were supple (used as blankets, not rugs, even cut and sewn into shaggy/bulky outerwear of some sort.

    I have no idea what the “röggvar” (nom. röggur? röggi?) part means but I suspect it has something to do with the pile. There is an adjective “röggvarofinn” (röggvar-woven).

  11. @Sigvase (late answer, post was in moderation so I missed it): Sw röja used to be rödja, cognate with Da rydde — different root.

    It strikes me now that Ic rúa/rýja and so on from the original post is probably not the same denominative verb as Trond’s ry, the Aktionsart is different.

  12. And fleece is reyfi (in Icelandic). Reyfi brings to mind the verb rífa (to tear [off]).

  13. J. W. Brewer says:

    Here’s someone who was previously curious about the word in the Van Morrison song (#2 in the list of 10 if you scroll down) and googled up the Norn sense. Another online source just claims w/o citation to authority that it’s approximately synonymous in Scots with “woo” (with which it is in fact rhymed in the song). There would have been lots of Scots in Van’s L1 acquired growing up on the Protestant side of Belfast, but it’s less clear to me that lexemes distinctive to the Orkneys/Shetland would have been current in Ulster English or how he would otherwise have come across them.

  14. Yeah, that seems implausible. I suspect he just made it up because it sounds good.

  15. Trond Engen says:

    Icel. reyfi has a good ON pedigree with reyfi “sheep’s wool; fleece”. This must be formed from the verb. reyfa “1. tear a rift in, bore through; tear 2. rob, plunder”, cognate to e.g. Da. røve “rob, plunder” and Eng. reave. As an umlauted verb it’s derived from raufa v. “(same meanings)” or the noun rauf “hole; robbery”. I think the etymological sense is “tear apart, take away”.

  16. I thought roo you might mean “run my hands through your hair”.

  17. Trond Engen says:

    Sco. roo you might also be another Norse verb, róa “row” in the metaphorical meaning “rock, sway”. Or the noun “calm”, with its Mod. Scand. verb No. roe “calm, sooth”, Sw. roa “entertain”.

  18. David Marjanović says:

    Oh! Sich die Haare raufen “to run your hands through your hair in desperation”! Also raufen alone, “to engage in a full-contact schoolyard fight”.

  19. I’m pretty sure rya (“a wool rug with a long pile of about 1-3 inches”) is called röggvarfeldur in Icelandic. It’s the same technique. Except the röggvarfeldur-s of old had much longer pile, something like 10 inches, and they were supple (used as blankets, not rugs, even cut and sewn into shaggy/bulky outerwear of some sort.

    Kærar þakkir!

  20. To expand on the connection David Marjanović made: in German Raufe is a hayrack – with the animals pulling the hay from behind the metal or wooden slats. Wikipedia says it derives from idg. *reu- = to pull, to tear (apart).

  21. There’s roving, which is wool that has been carded but not spun. Also rolag, which is similar but hand-carded. The word is Scottish Gaelic, but I think it’s from the same root as English roll.


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