When speaking of gangs of people like vikings, should the word be capitalized? For example:

In the 8th century, the vikings sacked Lindisfarne.

Should the word "vikings" be capitalized in the sentence above?

  • 1
    What does your dictionary say? – herisson Apr 10 '16 at 15:20
  • Names of peoples are capitalized. The Romans, the Greeks, the French. – rogermue Apr 10 '16 at 16:36
  • Your poor, your huddled masses. If you don't capitalize it you're describing people not naming them. It's not that you have to capitalize it. It's that when you don't you're not naming them. We are the Silly people. :) – candied_orange Apr 10 '16 at 17:09
  • Note that, if the individuals being discussed are not of Nordic origin (ie, not arguably "Vikings"), a "neutral" term such as "marauder" should be used instead of "Viking". Even if your intent is to use "viking" in a "generic" sense, using the term would be too confusing to your readers. – Hot Licks Apr 10 '16 at 21:53

A term such as "Vikings", which is primarily a reference to a particular race, nationality, religion, or culture, should be capitalized. Only when the word becomes so commonly used and generic that it loses it's association with the race or culture does it lose this "right" to capitalization ... sometimes.

For instance, though you might say that "vandals" (using the generic term) defaced your garage overnight, it's still the "Vandals" who sacked Rome. And given that "Vikings" is (hardly) ever used in a generic sense, "Vikings" would be capitalized in virtually all uses.

The scenario where I come closest to envisioning the use of "vikings" without capitalization would be if some group of people were setting out in boats, say to cross the Atlantic (or in spacecraft, to visit Uranus). These people might be described as "vikings", with a meaning to the word of, roughly, "bold seafarers". (Merriam-Webster, in this sense, defines "viking" as "sea rover", with the implication that it's a euphemism for "pirate".) But note, if the phrase "like Vikings" were used to describe them then the word should be capitalized.


Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) offers a mixed answer to the broader question of whether viking should be capitalized or lowercased. But as the term would be applied to one of the Norse raiders who sacked Lindisfarne, the Eleventh Collegiate is quite definite that Viking should be capitalized:

Viking n {O[ld] N[orse] vīkingr} (1807) 1 a : one of the pirate Norsemen plundering the coasts of Europe in the 8th to 10th centuries b not cap : SEA ROVER 2 : SCANDINAVIAN

One interesting thing about this entry is that it dates the word Viking to 1807—many centuries after the Northmen's depredations had ceased. Prior to that date, I imagine, the common term in English for one of the historical raiders from Scandinavia would have been Northman (which dates to prior to the 12th century), or perhaps Dane (14th century). Norseman is even newer to English than Viking, arriving in 1817.

The other interesting point about the Eleventh Collegiate's entry is that the capitalized spelling of Viking applies to two categories of people: the historical Northmen of medieval times (and, presumably, sports teams that have adopted that moniker), and rather loosely to Scandinavians of any era. The sea rover of indeterminate geographical origin is a lowercase viking.

Charles Keary, Norway and the Norwegians (1892) discusses the origin of the term Viking:

The people who lived in Viken lived opposite Denmark, and close to Sweden (the southern part of Sweden then was a part of Denmark); and it would appear that the Viken people were among the earliest to take part in the piratical expeditions of the Viking age. For the very word Viking as it was used by the Norsemen or Icelanders of a later date, is probably derived from this word Vik; so that Viking means only 'man of the Vik'.

Other sources identify vik as meaning "creek" or "smaller fiörd," and James Scott, The British Army: Its Origin, Progress, and Equipment (1868) offers this amusing differentiation between vik and fiord:

The Anglo-Saxon wic, the Latin vicus, was a town or dwelling, and it may probably be the same word as the Icelandic vik, a small creek or bay. Mr. Taylor (Words and Places) remarks that the inland "wicks" in English names are generally of Saxon origin, whilst those on the coast denote the stations of the Scandinavian sea-rovers. The difference between the "vik" and a "fiördr" is well shown by an Icelandic proverb, which says that there ought to be a creek (vik) between friends, but a frith (fiördr) between kinsmen.

Modern translations of the Icelandic sagas often use viking as a synonym for "raiding." For example from the 1976 Herman Palsson & Paul Edwards translation of Egil's Saga (written in approximately 1230), we have this typical description:

There was a man called Ulf Bjalfason. His mother was Hallbera, daughter of Ulf the Fearless, and she was the sister of Hallbjorn Half-Troll of Hrafnista, father of Ketil Trout. Ulf was so big and powerful that there was no one to match him. As a young man he used to go off on viking trips looking for plunder, and his partner in these was a man of good family called Berle-Kari, strong and full of courage. He was a berserk. The two of them were close friends and whenever it came to a question of money they shared the same purse. When their viking days were over, Kari went back a wealthy man to his farm on Berle Island.

As this excerpt suggests, the word translated here as viking was used in the Icelandic sagas to refer to an activity, not to designate a member of an ethnic group.


Yes, because 'Vikings' is a proper noun, referring to a Norse seafaring people.

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