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Word of the day from Robert Macfarlane:

Pamela Crossley called this lovely word to my attention.  It was also she who initiated our discussion of words for "mud season", that time of the year which is no longer winter nor yet spring that evokes a profound sense of being betwixt and between.

A few salient issues raised by the commenters on Macfarlane's tweet:

Iris Murdoch used this concept repeatedly in novels such as The Sea, The Sea and The Nice And The Good.

How to pronounce it (quite a few people mentioned this).


Welsh (cf. this recent post)

I have my own idiolectal way of pronouncing "sjushamillabakka" and am quite satisfied with it, since merely by saying the word I can conjure up the transitional setting and the watery sensations that it signifies.


  1. Joe said,

    April 29, 2018 @ 11:18 pm

    Who says this is a word? What does "Shetland, archaic" mean? Is it in any dictionaries? Has it been recorded in print at all in any form?

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 29, 2018 @ 11:28 pm

    The word may sound exotic and romantic but the concept is not. I.e., do not add this to one of those lists of "exotic foreign-sounding words for things we don't have a regular English word for." The area between high-tide line and low-tide line has a boringly non-exotic standard English name known to anyone who has occasion to deal with real estate ownership issues in oceanfront areas, namely the "foreshore." In most if not all oceanfront parts of the US, the law about the foreshore descends from English law – what was once the right of the Crown (rather than that of the owners of the adjoining dry land) to control it is now the right of, e.g., the State of Connecticut as successor to the Crown. However, googling suggests that the legal regime governing the foreshore in the Shetlands and Orkneys is for historical reasons different from that governing it in the rest of Scotland, which is in turn different from the regime prevailing in England and Wales, which is the one that has been widely exported.

  3. Thomas Rees said,

    April 29, 2018 @ 11:52 pm

    I hate to seem philistine, but is this word supposed to be Norn for “foreshore” or more prosaically “intertidal zone”? It doesn’t look like Shetland Scots.

  4. Laura Morland said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 12:00 am

    So, what's the etymology? It's not in the OED. Is there an alternate spelling?

    I must say that it doesn't 'feel' Norse to me. (However, although I did study Old Icelandic for a couple of years in grad school, I'm admittedly no expert.)

    P.S. I found J.W. Brewer's comment fascinating. Liminality is a salient feature of Old English oral-formulaic poetry, but I've never had cause to consider its legal ramifications.

  5. Thomas Rees said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 12:10 am

    Thank you, J.W. Brewer! I wasn’t even thinking of real property but rather of biology. Now I’m learning about exciting things like udal tenure.

  6. Keith said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 1:56 am

    J.M.Brewer's comments about the Law of the intertidal zone reminds me that this plays a big role in ‎Kim Stanley Robinson's New York 2140.

    As for it not looking Norse, I disagree.

    "Ham" looks enough like "home" (from Old English "hām", from *hammaz), "bakka" like "bak" as in "bak skyene er himmelen alltid blå" (Norwegian: "behind the clouds, the sky is always blue") and of course "back".

  7. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 2:33 am

    It looks reasonably Norse to me – maybe involving sjø=sea, mellom=between, bakken=slope/ground.

    Hopefully a friend who knows about Norn can be persuaded to wander in and comment!

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 2:42 am

    Is this not also (and also more prosaically) the littoral zone> ?

  9. richardelguru said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 5:55 am

    Philip, only metaphorically. (Sorry couldn't help myself.)

  10. AntC said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 6:26 am

    The area between high-tide line and low-tide line has a boringly non-exotic standard English name known to anyone who has occasion to deal with real estate ownership issues …

    Indeed. A topic keenly felt in New Zealand, due to an oversight in legal drafting by The Crown in 1840. When The Treaty of Waitangi talks of "the land" — and note the Chiefs signed a (notoriously unreliable and inconsistent) variety of translations into Te Reo — does it include the foreshore? If not, ownership the foreshore and seabed was never ceded.

  11. Ed Maxwell said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 6:52 am

    Here's an interesting fact about the land between high tide and low tide: the state of Florida has declared that this land is public and cannot be claimed by any landowner, like a hotel or private person, and that the "beach" area from high tide back can be claimed as private property by adjoining land owners. So, now I can tell the police I'm on the sjushamillabakka and they'll have to let me pass.

  12. languagehat said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 9:21 am

    Who says this is a word?

    Yeah, I'm very dubious about it — Google Books has zero hits, and I've seen too many excitable reports of what turn out to be garbled or nonexistent exotic/foreign "words" (razbliuto being perhaps the locus classicus) to take such claims with anything but a heaping pile of salt.

  13. Nina said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 9:29 am

    There are zero Google results for this that aren't related to a) the tweet, or b) this post. I wonder where the OP found it.

    However, a few Twitter replies note a resemblance to Icelandic:
    Easy to understand for an Icelandic speaker. Both the phrase and metaphor. Let me break it down: sjus=sjór (sea), amilli=á milli (in between), bakka=bakki(a) sea or river edge.

    And another reply notes the Shetland dialect word 'shoormal' of the same meaning.

  14. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 9:37 am

    Properly spelt sjusamillabakka, which gets a few more hits.

    I have a copy of the relevant entry from Jakobsen's Norn dictionary, and will post bits of it once I'm not at work…

  15. RfP said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 11:55 am

    There is a blog entry about the word at

    “Sjusamillabakka was a word used by Shetland fisherman to describe between the sea and the shore. It was one of many tabu words which were used by the men while at sea to describe a variety of things. The tabu words came from superstitions that using the ‘land’ words could bring bad luck. Sjusamillabakka originates from Norn which was spoken in the islands until the 1800s.


  16. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 11:59 am

    Here's the Jakobsen, explaining that it's a fisherman's 'tabu' word:

    The expression was used as a kind of evasive answer, resting on an old superstition. If a man, who had been to the sea-shore at low tide to gather patella as bait for fishing or angling, was asked on his way home where he had been, he would be unwilling to give a plain answer, because it might spoil his luck as a fisherman; he would therefore choose the above evasive answer.

    sjusamillabakka is an old *sjós-ámillum-bakka, between the sea and the shore (lit. sea-between-shore) in which the prep. ámillum has been inserted between two words governed by it in the gen.

  17. Pietro said,

    April 30, 2018 @ 2:24 pm

    Your reference to spring muddiness got me thinking about Paul Muldoon's wonderful poem "The Mud Room." The poem is very much about liminal spaces, all of them sitting under the title image of the mud room, that liminal space between outside the house and in.

  18. Martha said,

    May 1, 2018 @ 10:07 am

    How is it neither water nor quite land? It's not made out of a non-Newtonian fluid. The guy's just trying to make the concept sound more exotic and romantic than it really is. Sometimes it's covered in water, and sometimes it's land. It's always one or the other, even when the waves are lapping at it. (I'm sure there's a tipping point where really wet sand becomes really sandy water, but I've never seen the waves churn up so much sand when I'm standing on the sjushamillabakka that I've wondered which it was.)

  19. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    May 1, 2018 @ 2:08 pm

    How is it neither water nor quite land?

    In that you can neither sail on it nor plant it? I doubt Shetlandic fishermen and farmers were particularly bothered about physics.

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