What is the origin of the word ‘maelstrom’

Reading time: Less than 1 minute

Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: maelstrom….

Occasionally, I like to investigate words with which I am quite familiar, in terms of their meaning, but totally clueless as to their etymology.

The word maelstrom falls into this category. I encountered it recently in the fine Alison Wearing memoir, Moments of Glad Grace, the story of the author’s trip to Ireland on a genealogy quest with her father. Here is how Wearing  used the word:

Into this maelstrom we would drop our small wooden sailing ship and watch it bob around.

I had guessed the word might be of Nordic origin (probably on account of the -strom ending) and I was at least partly right.

Originally of Dutch origin, the word has been incorporated into Danish, Swedish and Norwegian and, in fact, the maelstrom of Saltstraumen (pictured above — during a time of calm) is the strongest one on the planet. Located south-east of the city of Bodø, Norway, it is a strait that “funnels” water through the channel four times a day. It is estimated that 400 million cubic metres (110 billion US gallons) of water passes the narrow strait during this event.

Danish use of malstrøm dates back to 1673, from the older Dutch maelstrom which means, literally, “grinding-stream,” from malen “to grind” and stroom or “stream.”

The earliest known figurative use of maelstrom occurs in a letter from novelist and short-story writer Gustave Flaubert (1821-80). In 1857, writing about the apparent “immorality” he had achieved as a result of his novel Madame Bovary he wrote: C’est un maelstrom de platitudes, de mensonges et de bêtises! (It is a maelstrom of platitudes, lies and stupidities!)