I’ve used a lot of dictionaries and seen a lot of strange words and definitions, but this is the strangest I ever did see. I was looking something else up in my three-volume New Great Russian-English Dictionary when my eye fell on this, near the top of page 2536:

сермесо́ак а m icecap, continental ice, inland ice.

My first thought was “what a strange, un-Russian word!” Of course, there are lots of un-Russian-looking Russian words — the very next page has серпазил and серфинг — but this was more so than most. Naturally I wanted to know where it came from, so I googled it… and got “Your search – сермосоак – did not match any documents.” This lifted it out of the “strange” category and put it right into the Twilight Zone. Even if it were a very rare word, even if it meant something entirely different, even if it weren’t Russian at all but had been presented to Russian readers somewhere in Cyrillic form, there would have been at least a few Google hits! What was going on?

Then I had the bright idea of googling the transliterated “sermesoak” and hit the jackpot, which is to say “About 6 results.” Most of them were from James Nicol’s An Historical and Descriptive Account of Iceland, Greenland, and the Faroe Islands: With Illustrations of Their Natural History (Oliver & Boyd, 1840), which says:

The island of Sermesoak, in the vicinity, is filled with lofty mountains covered with perpetual ice, from which sharp naked peaks project, like the towers and spires of some old castle. The extremity of this island is usually named Cape Farewell, but the true situation of that promontory is nearly thirty-six miles farther south.

The other hits were of no help (“The people of Sermesoak were then in consternation”; “a bear swam off from Sermesoak, tore our gathered heap asunder, and devoured her”) and had probably taken the word from the Nicol book. But the quoted passage has the vital clue that the island had an extremity named Cape Farewell, and googling that got me to this, from which I learned that the chunk of land it’s on is now called Egger Island (Danish: Eggers Ø; Greenlandic: Itilleq, old spelling: Itivdleq). North of it is an island called Sammisoq (old spelling Sangmissoq), which is close enough to Sermesoak that I’m not sure if it is the same word (and there was a geographical error at some point) or a similar word that was once applied to Egger Island and has now been forgotten. The whole thing is bizarre; I presume no one will be able to answer the main question, which is how the devil this (completely non-Russian) word (actually a proper name) got into the New Great Russian-English Dictionary, but maybe some Hatter will know something about the Greenlandic elements involved. As always, all thoughts gratefully received!


  1. My daughter’s going to Iceland & the Faroes in a couple of weeks to study the ecology. She’s reading everything, I can ask her.

  2. Please do, but warn her against being devoured by bears.

  3. sounds like a copyright trap to me

  4. I thought of that (cf. Mountweazel), but how did they come up with such an obscure term? It may be the best explanation, though.

  5. Jen in Edinburgh says

    Maybe the Cape Farewell on Egger Island is the ‘true situation’ 36 miles south, and Sammisoq had the mistaken one?

  6. Ah, could be!

  7. The only exotic synonym to ледниковый купол I could find was йокуль (from Iceland rather than Greenland)

  8. It’s a weird thing to write, that the extremity of an island is actually 36 miles south of the extremity of the island, but I think I get what he’s trying to say.

    The Nicol book seems to follow a geographic itinerary heading southeast along the coast, making me think he would place Sermesoak between Lichtenau and Nennortalik, both of which show up on Google maps, (the latter as Nanortalik.)

    There is a large island between them, large enough that it could be described as being “filled with lofty mountains.” Most of the other islands nearby could hardly be said to have more than one mountain. Alas, Google doesn’t allow me to gaze upon the nakedness of the peaks there, so I can’t comment on how well that may fit.

    It is also roughly 36 miles from the southern tip of Greenland on Eggers O.

    I think what Nicol is trying to say re Cape Farewell is that many people call the southern tip of the island he’s talking about “Cape Farewell,” perhaps because they were generally leaving from the populated areas of Julianehab (now Qaqortoq) and Lichtenau, and the south end of Sermesoak was the last cape they’d see. Yet the true southern cape of Greenland, where Nicol believes one ought to say Farewell, is further southeast.

  9. Makes sense!

  10. Did you notice Nicol’s mention of the fiord Sermeliarsuk on the page before, somewhere north of Lichtenau? Makes me think Sammisoq is just a third point with a similar name, rather than Sermesoak being a typo or misplaced placename.

    But the whole project is thrown into confusion by the image of Otto Fabricius spending his winters collecting materials for his Fauna and Lexicon, the summers paddling his kayak like a native. Wouldn’t one collect fauna in fair weather. I think I’m passing Cape Farewell and heading into open ocean. My last best hope may be to spot an iceblink, such as the one Nicol places near Frederikshabs.

  11. Here is what you’re really looking for, though. Deep in the wiki for the municipality of Sermersooq:

    >The latter two borders however run north-south through the center (45° West meridian) of the Greenland ice sheet (Greenlandic: Sermersuaq)

    So term means ice sheet in Greenlandic; the island is Ice Sheet Island, which matches the description; the “municipality” of Ice Sheet encompasses 205,000 sq. miles of the east coast, which is overwhelmingly just uninhabited, largely unexplored ice sheet.

    Has the term really carried over into Russian with that meaning?

    One day soon, our grandchildren will be taught that Greenland is a green and lush island, and the name of its largest municipality, Ice Sheet, is just some archaic term, and we’re not really sure why anyone would ever have called such verdant land by that name.

  12. My god, so it actually does mean ‘ice sheet’! Well found, and the compilers of the New Great Russian-English Dictionary are (sort of, although it’s still a crazy entry) vindicated.

  13. I probably should have done my research all at once and written a single post. But anyway, at this page:

    we learn that -suaq means big, so the origin of the term might be big ice or big glacier.

    On the other hand, Sermitsiaq Mountain is “Saddle Mountain,” so it may mean something more like Big Saddle (of ice that covers the island.)

  14. Excellent! I wasn’t expecting actual morphological analysis. And the more posts the merrier, that’s what blogging is all about.

  15. David Marjanović says

    Hahaaa, I thought, you quote the word as сермесоак, but googled for сермосоак! Problem solved! I googled сермесоак and got… no hits at all whatsoever.

    One day soon, our grandchildren will be taught that Greenland is a green and lush island

    No, a rocky archipelago with greenish fringes. Because of the weight of the ice shield, Greenland is so bowl-shaped that most of it is well below sea level; it’ll rise, but that’ll take a few thousand years. The floor of the Baltic Sea and its surroundings are still rising.

  16. Whoa, you’re right! How did I do that? It would have been embarrassing if googling the correct spelling got plenty of hits!

  17. John Cowan says

    I can’t find a paper on this, only an un-footnoted claim in WP. Is there really evidence that the Arctic Ocean, even an elevated ocean, will necessarily break in? There are no glaciers with substantial seafront (so no calving).

  18. Bless the Greenlandic Language Council.
    IT has a word analyzer, and a Kalaallisut/English/Danish dictionary to look up the parts. Whence we find all these things are built on sermeq ‘ice, glacier’. Sermersuaq is ‘big glacier’.

  19. An addition to my last comment, that got stuck somewhere: there’s also a kalaallisut-IPA converter, and sermersuaq is pronounced [¹sɜm ¹mɜs su wɑq#].

  20. >No, a rocky archipelago with greenish fringes. Because of the weight of the ice shield, Greenland is so bowl-shaped that most of it is well below sea level;

    This from the guy who told us just a thread ago that all atolls will soon be under water.


    Greenland, soon to be the world’s largest atoll.

  21. Andrew Dunbar says

    Well you’ve both managed to change the world at least:

    Your search – сермосоак – matched a single solitary document

    Your search – сермесоак – matched one poor lonely document

  22. OK, here is how I can explain it.

    There is apparently a word “sermersoak” which is kind of English (borrowed from Greenlandic Eskimo language) and means “ice cap”.

    I imagine it is included in some English dictionary somewhere.

    So, the great minds compiling Big English-Russian and Russian-Engish Dictionary used among their sources that dictionary with an entry explaining new English word “semersoak”.

    And somewhere in the process they got confused and put it (in Cyrillic) in the Russian part of the dictionary as a Russian word.

  23. By the way, can we count sermersoak as one of those 100 Eskimo words for snow?

  24. Devastating review of that dictionary:

    The selection of the vocabulary makes an extremely strange impression. In any case, it does not reflect the current state of the Russian language. So, the dictionary contains such words, phrases and illustrations as avantazh, armyak, artel’shchik sklada, arkharovets, arshinnik, be­beshka, bebs, eta vuzovka podruga moyey sestry, veshnyak, zakaznoy doklad, dosel’, zastupka, za­studenet’, iskrestit’, rabkoop and rabkrin (without explanation), skladchik (=shareholder), snur, snokhar’, snokhachestvo, spryazhnoy, stydli­vets, tilisnut’, khin’, tsarik, chuvstvennik, chuvstvilishche, shompolka, entot etc.
    Vulgarisms are an objective phenomenon of a living language and, therefore, should be reflected in dictionaries, including bilingual ones. However, it seems that the compilers of the dictionary while including such vocabulary in the dictionary primarily wanted to shock the user, rather than to reflect the objective state of the Russian language. In some cases, expressions with taboo vocabulary are clearly the fruit of artificial invention. In addition, the task undertaken by the compilers, in many cases, was not up to them, obviously, due to insufficient knowledge of the output language. They could not find English stylistic correspondence to Russian taboo vocabulary, despite the help of the “special English editor” Dr. A. Aizenman from the University of Chico in California (USA).
         In some cases, for vulgar-colloquial words, not only stylistically nonequivalent, but also semantically erroneous correspondences are given. So, the verb “iskobenit’sya” is translated by verbs meaning “to bend” and “shrink, bow low, subservient”, although the verb “kobenit’sya” is interpreted semantically correctly elsewhere.
         A significant part of the vocabulary is taken by terminology. The compilers of the dictionary claim that it “adequately presents the terminology of the humanities, social sciences, and art.” This is absolutely untrue. It is these areas of knowledge, oddly enough, the terminology in the dictionary is reflected the worst…
         It seems that the volume of the vocabulary was artificially increased to formally fit it into the declared 300 thousand lexical units. Moreover, a significant part of the words is obviously uncritically borrowed from dictionaries reflecting the state of the Russian language in the first third of the twentieth century. (composed, in all likelihood, by emigrants of the first and second waves).

  25. David Marjanović says

    Is there really evidence that the Arctic Ocean, even an elevated ocean, will necessarily break in?

    Why break? As far as I know, in some of the places where the coast consists of inland ice, the rock is already well below sea level today.

    Greenland, soon to be the world’s largest atoll.

    Heh… I was thinking of the coral-built ones.

  26. warn her against being devoured by bears

    She learnt this at an early age but it never hurts to remind them and so far, so good.

    Coral atolls
    Apparently there are large amounts of coral on the legs of old North Sea oil rigs, which is one reason for adaptive reuse (bird tables? desert islands?) rather than demolition.

  27. Bless the Greenlandic Language Council

    Indeed, and bless you for finding that! What a wonderful resource.

    Devastating review of that dictionary

    I’m sure all that is true, but it’s irrelevant to me — it has a whole bunch of words that aren’t in any other dictionary, and that’s what I need it for. I can check the fine points of semantics against other sources.

  28. @AJP Crown: It is interesting to see that early illustration, where E. H. Shepherd drew Christopher Robin in a slightly different style.

  29. The text is slightly different too: “big brown bears” became “masses of bears”, which is better for Americans anyway, as we would probably picture the more familiar black bears. I used to sing this with Irene and later with Dorian whenever we walked in a New York street. I would adjust “ever so portant” to “very important”, though: ever so feels archaic to me, as in “be it ever so humble”. I’m okay with Tolkien’s archaisms; Milne’s, not so much.

  30. So what do you do with “ever so jolly”?

  31. It’s not the tweeness of portant that catches in your craw. I thought of reading that to my daughters, and likewise thought I’d have to edit, but it was portant, not ever, that I was working around.

  32. Lars Mathiesen says

    Well, if the ice cap of Greenland melts, the melt water will surely fill the inland depression regardless of any connection to the Atlantic at large. It might evaporate off and leave a dry surface, of course, given much heat and little rainfall, but that would take a few hundred years more (at a guess).

  33. I don’t know how it sounded in 1929, but portant is the heffalump in the room now. ‘Ever so jolly’ is archaic to be sure but I don’t really mind saying it.

    JC: ever so feels archaic to me
    Wow, that’s good to know (also the ‘masses of bears’). I use it all the time, I’d no idea.

    Brett: It is interesting to see that early illustration, where E. H. Shepherd drew Christopher Robin in a slightly different style.

    Yes, I felt the same about that Christopher Robin. It’s a peculiar depiction of a smallish child, so neat & tidy. I expect when you draw the same characters over & over the first couple of hundred are the hardest while you figure out which of the details are telling. I like his bears a lot.

  34. I like his bears a lot.

    Yes, me too; they’re up there with Wiley’s (sample).

  35. Well, if the ice cap of Greenland melts, the melt water will surely fill the inland depression regardless of any connection to the Atlantic at large.

    Great Lakes of Greenland.

  36. The Other Greenland Sea.

  37. Wiley’s (sample).

    Haha! Oh, they’re so benign. I love the penguin decoy. Up there with Wallace & Gromit’s, for evil penguin escapades.

    Ryan: It’s not the tweeness of portant that catches in your craw.
    I’m guessing you meant it is, and you’re right.

  38. John Cowan says

    So what do you do with “ever so jolly”?

    Nothing. I couldn’t find a good substitute or it.

    the tweeness of portant

    I didn’t realize it was twee, I thought it was just forced by the rhythm (and H[arold] Fraser-Simpson’s melody, of course).

    Wiley’s bears

    I wonder if polar bears could survive at the edges of Antarctica. There are obvious problems with the idea, beginning with the complete vulnerability of penguins, the fact that there are no land predators now (and so no defense against them), and the possibility of passing diseases or parasites to greenfield populations. Not to mention being very much against international law.

    Calling it Lake Greenland sounds good to me if the Atlantic stays out. (Asimov wanted to rename the Great Salt Lake to the Utah Sea, analogous to the Caspian and Aral Seas.)

  39. Trond Engen says

    Filling with saltwater may take some time. The Baltic Sea is still brackish after 10 000 years. Though I’ll admit the differential equations of the greenlandic inland basin may turn out a little different.

  40. David Marjanović says

    The Baltic Sea has been both saltier and fresher than today. The connection to the North Sea is narrow, and the input of freshwater from rain, snow and rivers is considerable.

  41. Generically, the mixing time for bulk of the Earth’s oceans is about a millennium. That is roughly how long it takes for a typical water molecule in the ocean to have its position in the hydrosphere basically randomized. However, for particular bodies of seawater (like the Baltic or the Mediterranean) that are only weakly linked to the main oceans, it can take quite a bit longer for their water to be intermixed with the rest. (It is because of the existence of so many exceptional seas like this that trying to pin down the mixing time more precisely than a thousand years is not really useful. The equivalent mixing time for the atmosphere, incidentally, is more like one or two years.)

  42. The Baltic Sea is still brackish after 10 000 years.

    7500; the original Baltic Ice Lake first drained thru a strait across central Sweden, but this was quickly removed by uplift and the Baltic then spent some 2000 years as a freshwater lake, before the formation of the Øresund strait due to postglacial forebulge sinking.

    (The Bothnian Bay is moreover projected to again become a lake just some 2000 years from now.)

  43. If the polar bears won’t come to the penguins, perhaps the penguins (some of them) could come to some convenient (to me) island like Spitsbergen.

  44. Promptly to be eaten once again by the bears there. Unfortunately for them, penguins are simply incapable of firing those shotguns-with-rifle-bullets that humans are required to carry if they leave town.

    In 1936, some penguins were in fact imported to the Lofoten archipelago, where they would be safe from land predators. There is some evidence that they bred, but the last sighting was in 1949. The great auk, which once filled the penguin ecological slot in the North though not related to them, was last seen in 1852.

    Penguins do range as far north as the Galapagos, less than a degree north of the equator. A cartoon of a stuffed penguin named Tux is the symbol of the Linux operating system, apparently because Linus Torvalds, Linux originator and Benevolent Dictator For Life [sic], was bitten by a fairy penguin at the Canberra zoo.

    Update: I see that there are penguins at the Atlantic Sea Park in Ålesund and at the Bergen Aquarium, if that helps any. Alternatively, you could hop over to Edinburgh and pay a visit to Brigadier Sir Nils Olav III, Colonel-in-Chief of the Norwegian King’s Guard, a title usually held in more self-serious countries only by royalty. His father was a dubbed (though not belted) knight of Norway; his grandfather was merely Vice-Corporal, so the family has come up in the world.

  45. We have them. Puffins are our penguins. Taxonomically distinct, by niche they’re just small penguins. We had a larger one too, the great auk. But we killed it. That’s why we don’t get nice things.

  46. “…the very next page has серпазил and серфинг…”

    It must be huge if it has relatively obscure drug names. Serpasil aka reserpine isn’t exactly a household name AFAIK.

  47. On the similarities of puffins and (certain) penguins, there is this classic Bloom County.

    There are actually still plenty of auks in the northern hemisphere, filling the same kind of niche as the puffins. Only extinct great auk, the largest of the group, was flightless—and thus very close to large penguins ecologically. The remaining puffins and auks are able to fly, which significantly changes their behavior (and makes them harder to wipe out, since their nests do not need to be at ground level).

    The Harvard Museum of Natural History is really old fashioned and not well funded—with rooms full of lots and lots of animal remains, not all in good condition. However, they have some specimens that you are unlikely to see anywhere else, like the skeleton of a Stellar’s sea cow or a pair of great auks. The great auk exhibit is one of the few that is up to date, with a lot of interesting information about the species, including the exact date they went extinct, when the last pair was killed by hungry sailors.

  48. Ryan,
    My daughter is going to the Faroes next week and hopes to see the puffins, but I can’t figure out whether they’re still available for inspection. They seem to hang around until September and then it all gets a bit vague in the guides. They can’t just disappear though. They live to be 20 years old.

    Until the zoo messed about with it, the largest group of northern hemisphere penguins was always the one in Lubetkin’s Penguin Enclosure in Regent’s Park.

  49. They can’t just disappear though.

    Puffins spend the winter at sea.

  50. John Cowan says

    Indeed, puffins are alcids, so they can legitimately be called auks, a family which also includes guillemots, murres (which are considered guillemots by Europeans, though not by European taxonomists), auklets, and murrelets. All of them fly poorly, waddle on land, but fly through the water with the greatest of ease, just like penguins.

  51. AJP, I hope your daughter has better luck in the Faroes than my wife and I in Wales. (Or is that the archipelago we were recently told not to use the plural for? No, it’s the Shetlands we shouldn’t call the Shetlands, right?) We hiked the coast trail for four days looking, but no puffins. We did see seals, which led to a poem that was read at our wedding. A puffin poem would have likely turned out twee-er than portant, so maybe it’s for the best.

    The picture on the cover of your linked Birds of the Faroe Islands is amazing, with a whole-body expression more like a character from Bloom County than a real animal.

  52. Alex K.: Serpasil used to be quite common, half a century ago or more.

  53. Lars (not the original one) says

    Greenland was at one time settled by German-speaking Jesuits, hence the Lichtenau that can’t be found by that name on modern maps. One of these Jesuits, Samuel Kleinschmidt, devised the pre-1973 orthography.

  54. David Eddyshaw says

    Surely Kleinschmidt was a Moravian Brother (though latterly a fairly idiosyncratic one)?
    His Greenlandic grammar is a thing of beauty.

  55. Lars (not the original one) says

    Hence the “German-speaking”. I didn’t want to go too deeply into his particular beliefs and felt “Jesuits” was good enough. Google Books contains a downloadable PDF of his original 1851 work. Interestingly, he does not capitalize the Nouns in his German, but it flows so naturally that I didn’t realize until the bottom of the first Page.

  56. David Marjanović says

    does not capitalize the Nouns in his German

    Grimm, Verner and Kluge didn’t either. Must have been a fashion among linguists till the first actual orthography put an end to it in 1901.

  57. >I didn’t want to go too deeply into his particular beliefs and felt “Jesuits” was good enough.

    Not that Moravian Brothers vs. Jesuits was key to the point you wanted to make, but this is something like calling Francisco Franco a Communist because you don’t want to get too deeply into his politics. The Moravian Brothers were Protestants and the Jesuits were the Pope’s anvil to hammer the Prots against. There’s also a category error, since Moravian Brothers are congregants in a particular sect of Christianity, while Jesuits are more like an organization constituted for specific purposes within the sect that is Catholicism.

    Moravian Brothers are definitely not Catholic Friars, if that’s what you were thinking.

  58. John Cowan says

    No, it’s the Shetlands we shouldn’t call the Shetlands, right?

    Shetland, yes. And Orkney. The largest island in each archipelago is called “The Mainland”.

  59. David Marjanović says

    Specifically, the Jesuits are a monastic order just like the Dominicans or the Franciscans or the Benedictines.

  60. Puffins spend the winter at sea.

    Oh dear, they’re all going to be gone. Perhaps they’d spend all their time at sea if it weren’t for needing land for nesting. I suppose fish is the reason.

    The picture on the cover of your linked Birds of the Faroe Islands is amazing
    Yes! There’s a good argument to be made for having a puffin as head of state, they’re so photogenic. But don’t get me started.

  61. January First-of-May says

    Not sure about heads of state, but the island micronation of Lundy somewhat infamously used the name “puffin” for their currency (which correspondingly featured said birds).

  62. Lars (not the original one) says

    It’s the sort of error a non-expert might make. In my mind, Jesuits are traveling missionaries of the Christian faith. The Moravian Brothers who settled Greenland are missionaries of the Christian faith. Of course the difference in other respects is greater, but in this it is same-same. I stand corrected, though. I might have written “Moravian Brothers” if I’d been able to work it into the sentence without veering into (what I felt was) irrelevancy.

  63. Missionaries would have been a fine word. There really couldn’t have been any irrelevancy so great as “Jesuits.”

  64. PlasticPaddy says

    I think everyone is being unfair to Lars. He clearly liked the word Jesuit and wanted to appropriate it for my evangelical co-rightfooters who do mention Jesus a lot, distinguishing them from left footers, who mention Mary a lot☺

  65. Stu Clayton says

    Here are both feet synchronized: Mary – how she made a new man of Ignatius

  66. If the UK would relax its imperial grip, Lundy is the perfect place to have a puffin head of state. There’s also a Lundøya off the Norwegian coast. With the Faroes in between, there’s the makings of a puffin empire here. (One small problem is that except in Iceland the Scandinavian etymology of lund is that it wa a grove of trees, not a puffin.)

    On St Ignatius, I’m not convinced that just because he knew of a bunch of more-or-less Marys he’d have devoted his life to the son of a Mary. I know of some famous Jeremys (Corbyn, Clarkson, Hunt) but I’m not about to start a religious movement.

  67. Trond Engen says

    AJP: One small problem is that except in Iceland the Scandinavian etymology of lund is that it wa a grove of trees, not a puffin.

    Yes, well, which is why lunde(fugl) “puffin” has nothing to do with lund “grove”. I think it may be an old borrowing from (Para-)Saami, a descendant of Uralic *lunta “bird”.

  68. Sami would preserve a Scandinavian name while No. lunde [puffin] possibly << PU *lunta “bird”

    While the Icelandic and Devon lund- may still be puffin related. Samisk is from PU too, right? Surely only the Vikings could have carried a Samisk word to the north Devon coast or to Iceland? (Note: I'm completely out of my depth here.)

  69. Trond Engen says

    Oh, yes. For the Vikings this would have been just another Old Norse word, and they carried Old Norse with them.

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