What do the Icelandic Place Names Actually Mean?

Some time ago, a picture with long Icelandic place names went viral. The place names put Eyjafjallajökull to shame, the volcano name many could not pronounce.

The tongue twisters are often difficult for Icelanders to pronounce as well – at least if we are going to do it fast (however, listen to this handy audio, where all the Icelandic place names are read). The meaning of the names are not always obvious, even for Icelanders.

So, we decided to translate the Icelandic place names!

The West Fjords

Kjálkafjarðartungur: 

  • Kjálka-fjarðar-tungur
  • Literally: jawbone-fjord-tongues/spit.
  • Actually means: Kjálkafjörður was named after it‘s settler Geirsteinn kjálki. Kjálkafjarðartungur are a spit of land in Kjálkafjörður. 

West Iceland

Barkarstaðagilslægðir:

  • Barkar-staða-gils-lægðir
  • Literally: Bark-place-canyon-depressions. 
  • Actually means: Barkarstaðir is the place of Börkur (which means bark). Gil means a canyon, and lægðir means depressions. The depressions of the canyon of Börkur’s place. 

Litluspjótahólmaflögur:  

  • Litlu-spjóta-hólma-flögur 
  • Literally means: Small-spears-islet-flatland 
  • Actually means: This place name doesn’t actually exist in this form. However, Spjótahólmaflögur does. 

Fimmálnaspottalækur:  

  • Fimm-álna-spotta-lækur
  • Literally: Five-ell-rope-stream 
  • Actually means: Five-ell-short distance-stream. The stream which is five ells long.

Gullberastaðaselsbringur:

  • Gull-bera-staða-sels-bringur
  • Literally means: Gold-carrying-place-shieling-grassy hill bump or Gold-carrying-place-seal-breast
  • Actually means: Gullberastaðir is named after the settler Björn gullberi, who was very rich. It’s the grassy hill bump of the Gullberastaðir’s shieling.

Glúmsgilskegrahryggur:

  • Glúmsgil (glúms-gil) kegra-hryggur 
  • Literally  means: Glúmur’s-Canyon-edge of vegetation-ridge 
  • Actually means. Now we need a bit of education in the Icelandic sagas. Glúmur refers to Glúmur Óleifsson, who was the husband of Hallgerður Höskuldsdóttir, who later married Gunnar Hámundarson (one of the main persons of the Saga of Brennu-Njáll). Glúmur once slapped her, and her foster father, Þjóstólfur, threw Glúmur into a canyon for it. That’s how Glúmsgil (Glúmur’s canyon) got named. Kegri means the edge of vegetation, and hryggur is both the spine and a mountain ridge.  So this long word means The mountain ridge at the edge of the vegetation by Glúmur’s canyon. This was one of the more difficult Icelandic place names to translate!

Klofalækjarkjaftur:

  • Klofa-lækjar-kjaftur 
  • Literally means: Forked-spring-mouth 
  • Actually means: This could be translated as crotch-stream-trap (mouth), but it actually means The mouth of Klofalækur. Klofalækur is The Forked Spring. So, it’s the mouth of the forked spring. 

Kirkjulækjarblettur 

  • Kirkju-lækjar-blettur.
  • Literally means: Church-stream-stain.
  • Actually means: Blettur means, in this case, plot or lawn. Church-stream-plot.  

Úlfjótsvatnskirkja 

  • Úlfjóts-vatns-kirkja
  • Literally means: Ugly Wolves-Lake-Church.
  • Actually means: Úlfljótur was one of the settlers of Iceland; the lake is named after him. So this is the church of Úlfljótsvatn Lake.  

Vatnsleysustrandarhreppur 

  • Vatns-leysu-strandar-hreppur
  • Literally means: Water-less-beach-district
  • Actually means: The district of the beach without water. Vatnsleysuströnd is a beach in Reykjanes Peninsula. The area is not without water, as the name would suggest. It is derived from the Danish word vandløse, which means water spring area.  

Draugagjártangar  

  • Drauga-gjár-tangar
  • Literally means: Ghost-ravine-spit (of land).
  • Actually means: It just means that. People must have encountered a lot of ghosts in the area for the name to stick! 

Þráinsskjaldarhraun  

Þráinsskjaldarhraun – Photo: Ferlir
  • Þráins-skjaldar-hraun.
  • Literally means: Þráinn’s-shield-lava field.
  • Actually means: The lava field of Þráinsskjöldur. Þráinsskjöldur could be translated as the shield of Þráinn, but skjöldur in this instance refers to lava domes. So it’s the Lava field of Þráin’s lava dome. Who Þráinn was, no one knows.  

South Iceland

Fíflholtssuðurhjáleiga  

  • Fífl-holts-suður-hjáleiga.
  • Literally means: Fool’s-hill-south-smallholding 
  • Actually means: It means just that. The south small holding of Fool’s Hill or Fíflholt.

Yxnadalsöxl  

  • Yxna-dals-öxl.
  • Literally means: Cows in heat’s-valley-shoulder
  • Actually means: Yes, it literally is named The shoulder of the valley of cows in heat. Yxna is “cows in heat”, dalur means a valley, and öxl means a shoulder.  

Gýgjagjá 

  • Gýgja-gjá
  • Literally means: Ogress-ravine 
  • Actually means: Just that. The ravine of the Ogress!

Þykkvabæjarfjara 

  • Þykkva-bæjar-fjara
  • Literally means: Thick-town-beach
  • Actually Means: The Þykkvabær beach. Þykkvabær means heavily populated area and fjara is beach. The beach of the heavily populated area.

Bleikkollubólstindur 

Pink horse. Photo: Bændablaðið
  • Bleik-kollu-bóls-tindur.
  • Literally means: Pink-head’s-lair-peak 
  • Actually means: Bleikur is pink, kollur is head, ból is a lair, and tindur is a point of a mountain. But in this case, bleikkolla refers most likely to the color of a horse. A pink horse is a light red-brown and a pink-headed horse would be light red-brown on its head. So, it’s the mountain peak by the pink-headed horse’s lair!

Hvalvörðugilslækur  

  • Hval-vörðu-gils-lækur
  • Literally means: Whale-cairn-canyon-stream 
  • Actually means: Just that! The stream in the canyon with the whale cairn

Flataskerslagnaklettur 

  • Flata-skers-lagna-klettur
  • Literally means: Flat-skerry-low-cliff
  • Actually means: Just that! The low cliff of the flat skerry.

Golbílduhjallaröðlar 

Photo: Heiðdís
  • Golbíldu-hjalla-röðlar
  • Literally means: Colored sheep-hovel-ridges 
  • Actually means: Golbílda refers to a color of sheep where they are white but have grey, brown or black stomach, chest, and behind, with dark faces with light streaks. Hjalli is a hovel or a small building where sheep could get shelter. Röðlar is the plural of röðull, which is a ridge. The ridges with the sheep shacks 

Sandmerkisheiðarhnúkur 

  • Sand-merkis-heiðar-hnúkur
  • Literally means: Sand-edge-heath-peak
  • Actually means: Sandmerki means the edge of sand (desert). Heiði is heath. Hnúkur is peak. So: The Peak of the heath at the edge of the sand. Sandmerki is a moor below the mountain peak and heath. Edge of the sand-heath-peak.

The Highlands

Tindfjallajökulsdalur 

Tindfjallajökull Glacier. Photo: Giuseppe Milo
  • Tind-fjalla-jökuls-dalur
  • Literally means: Peak-Mountain’s-Glacier-Valley
  • Actually means: Just that. The Glacier Valley of Tindfjöll or Peak Mountains.

Sjóölduvatnskjaftur 

  • Sjó-öldu-vatns-kjaftur
  • Literally means: Ocean-Wave-Lake-Trap
  • Actually means:  The Mouth of the Ocean Wave Lake 

Skeiðamannafitarásar 

  • Skeiðamanna-fitar-ásar  
  • Literally means: Spoon-men-moorland-ridge
  • Actually means: So, Skeiðamenn are people who live or are from the Skeiðahreppur district. Skeið can mean spoon and amble (regarding horses). But in this case, it probably means plains or lowlands. Fit means moorlands, or the edge of a field, and ás is a ridge. So it is The ridges of the moorlands of the Lowland Men. This makes little sense as this is in the Icelandic Highlands! 

Blautukvíslargljúfur 

  • Blautu-kvíslar-gljúfur
  • Literally means: Wet-brook-canyion
  • Actually means. Just that. Blautukvísl means wet brook and gljúfur is canyon. The Blautukvíslar Canyon. Blautukvísl means wet brook. The Wet Brook Canyon. 

Lyngtungufjallsshjalli 

  • Lyng-tungu-fjalls-hjalli
  • Literally means: Ling-tongue-mountain-shack 
  • Actually means: Just that! Lyng is ling, tunga means tongue but is not the muscle in this case but a spit of land, fjall is a mountain, and hjalli a shack. So, the mountain shack at the spit of land with ling. 

Rjúpnabrekkukvísl 

  • Rjúpna-brekku-kvísl
  • Literally means: Ptarmigan-hill-spring
  • Actually means: Just that! The spring on the Ptarmigan hill.

East Iceland

Ytri-Timburgatnatindur 

  • Ytri-Timbur-gatna-tindur
  • Literally means: Outer-Timber-Road-Peak 
  • Actually means: Just that! Ytri-Timbur is probably a farm name. So it‘s the mountain peak by the Ytri-Timbur roads.

Fornmannanaustalækur 

  • Forn-mamma-nausta-lækur
  • Literally means: Ancient-Men-Boathouse-Stream 
  • Actually means: Just that! The stream by the ancient men‘s boathouse

Gestreiðarstaðaskarð 

  • Gest-reiðar-staða-skarð
  • Literally means: Guest-riding-point-Pass 
  • Actually means: Just that!

Laufskálafjallagarður 

  • Laufskála-fjallagarður
  • Literally means: Pergola-moutainrange 
  • Actually means: Just that!

North Iceland

Svalbarðsstrandarhreppur 

Svalbarðseyri in Svalbarðsstrandahreppur. Photo: Navaro, CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
  • Svalbarðs-stranda-hreppur
  • Literally means: Svalbard-beach-district 
  • Actually means: Just that! The district‘s name is Svalbarðsströnd (hreppur means disctrict).

Hrossahjallahnjúkur 

  • Hrossa-hjalla-hnjúkur
  • Literally means: Horse-hovel-peak 
  • Actually means: Just that! There must have been a horse hovel nearby. Many Icelandic horses are kept outside all year round.

Fremri-Hrútaskálahnjúkur 

  • Fremri-Hrúta-skála-hnjúkur
  • Literally means: Front-Ram-Lodge-Peak 
  • Actually means: The mountain peak of the ram lodge that is before the other ram lodge.

Grákolluhólalækur 

  • Grákollu-hóla-lækur
  • Literally means: Grey-head-ewe-hill-stream 
  • Actually means: Grákolla is a name of an ewe colouring. The ewes have grey head. So, it‘s the stream by the hill where the grey-headed ewes are … or were.

Brúnkuskurðarpollur 

  • Brúnku-skurðar-pollur
  • Literally means: Tanned-ditch-puddle
  • Actually means: Brúnka refers to a brown mare. So it is actually Brown-mares-ditch-puddle

What other Icelandic place names do you want to know the meaning of?

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