Word Bites — Different cities, similar names (Helsinki / Helsingfors, Helsingborg, Helsingør)

There are many places in the world that share the same name, or rather similar names. Take the distribution of all the Londons, Parises, and Romes of the world. While the most popular versions are the “originals” found in the UK, France, and Italy respectively, it did not stop the US, Canada, and even Kiribati from having some pieces of land (more appropriately, towns and villages) named after these renown cities.

In Europe, there are many places with rather comically short names, such as the rivers called Aa in Belgium, France, Germany, Switzerland, and the Netherlands. Perhaps a more hilarious one would be the several villages in Norway and Sweden called Å:

Its etymology is rather simple, however. A more interesting one to look at, once again in northern Europe, there are cities with strikingly similar names — those of Helsinki (Swedish: Helsingfors) in Finland, Helsingborg in Sweden, and Helsingør (Swedish: Helsingör) in Denmark. There are other place names that you might not want to confuse with, such as Helsinge in Denmark, and Hälsingfors in Sweden. They all start with a similar element, Helsing, despite being in different countries. So how did this originate?

Firstly, let us explore where the word Helsing came from, and our first look would take us to the Øresund Strait, between what is now Helsingborg and Helsingør. The word “helsing” actually derives from the word “hals”, meaning “neck”, or “narrow strait”. Considering the geography of the Øresund Strait, it suggests that the “helsing” here refers to the narrowest point of that strait, at just around 3.5 kilometres wide. The people living along this strait were referred to as “helsinger”, or “people of the strait”. This was first mentioned by King Valdemar the Victorious, in the Liber Census Daniæ.

The “borg” in “Helsingborg” is a suffix added to mean the word “stronghold or city”, from Old Norse. It shares this origin with many other place suffixes like “Burg” in German, such as “Hamburg”, and “borough” or “burgh” in English, like “Loughborough” and “Edinburgh”.

However, the “gør” part in “Helsingør” does not quite relate to the place name as a whole. This is, in part, due to the meaning of “gør” as the verb “to do” or “to bark”, which does not quite make sense when put together with “helsing”. It may thus seem as if the place name originates more from the people who live there, rather than just a geographical feature of the city, as an evolved form of “Helsinger”. “Helsingør” could very well mean “the land of the people of the strait”, a more elaborate meaning than “the city of the strait” in “Helsingborg”.

Correction – I have been wrong to split Helsingør as Helsing + gør. Instead, treating Helsingør as a compound of Helsing + ør would yield more sensible results. The word “ør” is a Danish word used to mean a “gravelly beach” or “gravelly shore”. When used as a suffix of a Danish place name, it can also be altered or weakened to “er”, as in Gedser. So Helsingør would translate better as “The gravelly beach of the [Øresund] strait”. Big thanks to Erwin for reaching out!

And now, we arrive at the newest of the Helsings here, founded in 1550 by the Swedish King Gustav I for Sweden. Called Helsingfors in Swedish, the city of Helsinki is the capital city, and the most populous city of Finland. Coming together with Espoo, Vantaa, and Kauniainen, these constituents form the Greater Helsinki Metropolitan Area. But with no proximity to any sort of narrow strait, where does the word “Helsing” come from?

It turns out, its origins somewhat deviates from those of Helsingborg and Helsingør. Rather than being related to a strait, this one relates to a river.

But, the river that runs through the city is called the Vantaa River, or Vantaanjoki. Or has this always been the case?

Well, maybe not always. A theory proposed that Helsingfors originated from the time of Swedish colonisation into the coastal areas of Finland, while the Finns used to live further north, away from the Gulf of Finland. Colonists from Hälsingland, central Sweden, arrived at the very river we mentioned, what is now called the Vantaa River. However, the place name, Hälsingland, has a rather uncertain etymology, although they were known as Swedish-speaking residents of the entire coastal region north of Uppland. These people then called the Vantaa River the Helsingå, or “Helsinge River”.

Linguists have disputed this though, citing dialectal differences between Uppland Swedish and perhaps the Swedish spoken in Stockholm. Some of them, instead points back to the exact Norse origins of “helsing”, suggesting that the narrowest part of the river that runs through Helsinki gave rise to the use of the word “hals”, meaning “neck”.

Whichever origin is more plausible, the second element of Helsingfors, “fors”, refers to the rapids that run at the mouth of the river, known in Finnish as Vanhankaupunginkoski. With an old town there (and then) commonly referred to as “Helsinge”, the word “fors” got added, becoming “Helsinge fors”, then “Helsingfors”, quite literally meaning “Helsinge rapids”. These very rapids also go by another name in Swedish, called the “Old Town Rapids”, or Gamlestadsforsen.

As Helsingfors later came under Finnish rule, an adaptation had to be made to suit Finnish sounds and phonology. Deriving from the word “Helsinge”, this became “Helsinki” in Finnish, used by official Finnish Government documents and Finnish language newspapers since 1819.

This has been an interesting dive into how the word “hals”, and other origins, could have led to three strikingly similar place names, in different languages. Helsinki has probably messier origins than Helsingør and Helsingborg, but hopefully these plausible origins have been adequately covered. It is quite fun diving into etymologies across different languages, and building a picture of how the cities’ names came to be.


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