What do place names in Iceland actually mean?
We get this quite a lot. What do the names of places, towns and sights in Iceland actually mean.
Which is nice since it shows a willingness to learn about a country you will visit or want to visit and that can only mean a thinking person.
As a general rule, Icelandic being a very old language, names often simply describe the area or location in the fewest possible words. That is to mean that overall names in Iceland mean something and can sometimes give you a hint about the place just from the name. You will find few names here that mean absolutely nothing. Then again, some of the names are almost criminally simple too.
Keep in mind this is not scientific by any means but just our own basic translation from Icelandic to English. Also this list is far from exhaustive but only intended to give an idea how names are formed and what, if anything, they mean. Good thing is, if you understand some basic words you will know what kind of place it is long before you arrive and without any assistance.
But on with the show.
REYKJAVIK >> It means Smoky Bay and takes the name from ancient past when the first settlers arrived and found hot springs all over the place from which steam and smoke was rising. Hence the name. It might interest someone that the very first documented name of Reykjavik was Reykjarvik.
AKUREYRI >> Literal translation of this Capital of the North is Sandbank Field. What was most likely meant originally was a fertile ground since back in the days conditions for growing things here was excellent due to weather and yearly conditions. This is practically the same name as Akranes town in the West of Iceland. Nes and eyri both meaning a tip of land jutting out to sea.
HÖFN >> This one is easy. Höfn means Harbor. Also here is Raufarhöfn which is meant as Crevasse Harbour or a tight harbor.
VÍK >> Another easy one is this one. Like the ending of Reykjavik. Vík means Bay.
LAUGARVATN >> Hot Spring Lake is the correct name for this place. And makes perfect sense since here are and were a number of hot springs right by the lake. But here is also a double-meaning for the first word Laugar also meant a place to wash clothes.
EGILSSTAÐIR >> Right out of the Sagas so to speak. It simply means the Place of Egill. Egill being the first known farmer to farm this place.
KÓPAVOGUR >> In Iceland there is not much distinguishing the words vik and vogur. Both pretty much mean bay. Therefore one would call this place Bay of Seals. It was actually a popular spot for seals in former times but not today.
ÍSAFJORÐUR >> Fjord of Ice is the meaning of this place. Made sense before global warming since this great fjord was closed for months on end in wintertime by ice.
HÚSAVÍK >> This is a troublesome name. The literal meaning is House Bay or a bay with buildings but that makes little sense. Some scholars believe this name and others húsa, house, names in Iceland come straight from Norway with settlers and mean something other than houses.
LAUGAVEGUR >> The most famous shopping street in Reykjavik has a weird name that could be translated as Hot Spring Road. But this is misleading as there were never any hot springs here. Rather this was the route taken by people to get to Laugardalur valley where hot water guzzled forth from the ground and was the place of washing for locals for a long time. Laugardalslaug svimming pool and Laugardalsholl sport center as well as Reykjavik Botanical Garden stand in Laugardalur nowadays. Notice the same names.
VATNAJÖKULL >> This greatest glacier in Iceland and Europe has the simplest of names. It means Lake Glacier but this is not its original name. Centuries ago it was called Klofajökull which could translate as crevasse glacier due to the great number of crevasses. But Lake Glacier actually makes sense since underneath the center of Vatnajökull one will find Grímsvötn, Lakes of Grim, a highly volatile area dotted with deep pools of water.
LANDMANNALAUGAR >> Again here you will notice the ending Laugar and this invariably means hot spring or hot source of water. The first part of the name is the name of Landmannaafrétt which is a designated district. Literal translation would therefore be Hot Springs of Landmanna.
BARNAFOSSAR >> A number of tourist are surprised to know there are actually Childrens Falls here. That is the correct translation of Barnafossar waterfall in Borgarfjordur which takes its name from mythology about two boys drowning here long time ago. But the falls actually were called Bjarnafoss before which means Bear Fall but has nothing to do with bears and more to do with the local name Bjarni.
HERÐUBREIÐ >> This queen of Icelandic mountain has an untranslatable name and scholars believe it is not even very Icelandic but Norwegian. Mountains in Norway have a similar name. Some contend its old name is Hörðubreið.
HEKLA >> The name hekla in Icelandic means to knit but that has nothing to do with Hekla mountain. Again, it is likely the name came from Norway with the settlers. Some believe the meaning had to do with a woman´s coat as the mountain in earlier times reminded folks of such clothing but nobody knows for sure.
HALLORMSSTADASKÓGUR >> The largest woodland in Iceland bears the simple name of the first farm here. Hallormur was the name of the farm and since here were woods, skógur in Icelandic, it made sense to put those two together.
FLÚÐIR >> This little village has a basic name. Flúðir means Rapids and take the name from river rapids nearby.