Big is one of the mystery words of English etymology, extremely common but of highly dubious origin.

In its earliest use in English it meant ‘powerful’ or ‘strong’ and it was not until the 16th century that it took on the meaning of ‘large’.

It occurred originally in northern English texts, only slowly spreading south, which suggests that ‘big’ may be of Scandinavian origin.

Viking attacks on Britain began around 800 AD and many invaders settled in northern England. The area was called Danelaw. Many simple everyday English words came with the Norse arrivals. Nouns such as ‘bank’, ‘egg’, ‘skin’ and ‘window’; adjectives such as ‘happy’, ‘ugly’, ‘weak’ and ‘odd’; verbs such as ‘cast’, ‘call’, ‘take’ and ‘sprint’ were all loanwords from Scandinavian languages.

Some have suggested a connection between ‘big’ and the Norwegian dialect word bugge, meaning ‘important man’.

Whatever its origins, where would we be without big – a little word with a big heart? We’d lose ‘big head’, ‘big business’, ‘big stick’, ‘big band’, ‘big daddy’ and of course the ‘Big Apple’. We couldn’t ‘talk big’ or ‘think big’ or joyously travel on the ‘big dipper’.

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