top of page
  • Writer's pictureHans Faber

A severe case of inattentional blindness: the Frisian tribe’s name

Ineke van Duinen
Ineke van Duinen

The name Frisii for the people living on the southern coast of the North Sea is old. Very old. It dates from Late Antiquity. Today we call them Frisians. Roman and Greek historians and bureaucrats have written down the tribe’s name of this Germanic or Celtic people in many texts. Almost two millennia ago. With that, modern Frisians carry one of the oldest documented tribe’s names in Europe. But there is no unanimous agreement on what the name means. Many theories still float around in the scholarly debate. We, humble hikers, decided it was time to put this endless debate out of its misery. A recent archaeological publication provided an opportunity to do so. Yes, the explanation lies hidden in plain sight, like a hare on barren tidal marshland.

Almost two millennia ago, when the Mediterranean civilization reached the backwaters on the southern shores of the North Sea, they wrote that the people living in the west and north of what's now the Netherlands, were Frisians. The Romans and Greek, notably Cornelius Tacitus, Pliny the Elder, Cassius Dio and Ptolemy I Soter, spoke of the Frisii, Phresii, Frisei, Fresones, Frusiones, Frisiones, Phresones, Phresiones, Frixones, Frigones, Fresonici, Friszozi, or Fraisoz, and probably we missed one or two. These names have evolved into among others Fresan, Frysan, Frýsum, Freeschen, Vriesen, Vresen, frison, frieson, frísir, Frisere, Friesen, Friezen, and, of course, Friesians and Frisians. In the meantime we're not merely talking of humans anymore, but also of cows and horses.

A first thing we noticed, most papers and articles discussing the origin of the tribe's name of the Frisians generally have the assumption that Frisians already carried their name when the Romans arrived. In other words, in this scenario, the Romans marched into the area, inquired at the long-haired locals living in the watery mess about who they were and how they named themselves. In a low-throat voice, the answer must have sounded something like 'phraise'. Et voilá, the name explained! Unfortunately, those Roman visitors forgot to inquire what the name meant.

When reasoning from the assumption that Frisians had filed their tribal name at the then civil registry before Roman troops entered the territory, another issue has to be dealt with to explain the origin of the name. Namely, whether Frisians were a Germanic people or a Celtic people, or perhaps an admixture thereof. If they spoke a Celtic language, and the linguistic odds are becoming stronger and stronger they were indeed (Schrijver 2017; check also our post Barbarians riding to the Capital to claim rights on farmland), you'll have to construct a different theory than when they spoke another language (Van Renswoude 2012). To put it simply, if Frisians were Celts and uttered the word 'phraise', it must have meant something else than if they were a Germanic people and used the same word. This theory therefore gets stuck in the (sea) mud quickly.

Hawar, for many centuries after the arrival of the Romans, nobody cared what the name of the Frisians meant anyway. Not among Frisians themselves. Not among the rest of the world. Until, let’s say, two centuries ago when history and Romanticism were hot, and every country, proud national state and its peoples were trying to prove they had the most ancient roots. If not the oldest, then surely more noble and older than their neighbours'. Frisians played this 'I am the noblest and most ancient' game as well. Passionately even, and already in the second half of the fifteenth century!

We found many explanations of the tribe’s name fries/frisian, of which we've listed below the most heard.

A classic one, in the category of fashion, often found, is that fries/frisian is related to Old-Frisian frisle and fresle, or English frizzle meaning ‘curly hair’. Think also of the verb friseren ‘to make hair curly’ in the Dutch language, albeit friseren is a French loanword. Apparently, if you're to adopt this theory, Frisians had curly hair 2,000 years ago (Grimm 1840, Müllenhoff 1900, De Vries 1971, Van Veen & Van der Sijs 1997). In this respect, think also of vrieze, Fries, frise, frisa, and friz in successively English, German, French, Portuguese, and Ukrainian languages, which is a rough woollen fabric type (Van der Sijs 2010). The woollen fabric vrieze in Middle Dutch language was known as frise.

True, we cannot deny that the history of Frisia is one in which sheep and their curly woollen fleece played a major role. We all know of the famous pallia fresonica 'Frisian cloaks' mentioned in several early-medieval texts, and of the production of fresum in Frisia as mentioned in the late eighth-century codex Lex Frisionum 'law book'. However, to say that Frisians were named after curly hair, rough wool, or sheep doesn't make much sense, we think. It is more plausible the other way around. Therefore, the best we can do with this frivolous theory is to listen to the Dutch '80s teenage girl group Frizzle Sizzle and their song Alles heeft een ritme 'everything has a rhythm'. Check our posts Haute couture from the salt marshes and Rescuing The Rolling Sheep for more background on wool production and fashion in early medieval Frisia.

By the way, because the Frisians have been named Frigones too, in the Ravenna Cosmography ca. AD 700, their tribe's name has occasionally been explained in relation to coldness and the cold climate. However, if the southern shores of the North Sea with its mild temperature were already considered cold by the Romans and Greeks, other tribes living further north would have earned this title even more. Perhaps these frigid Mediterranean people should have worn more clothes made of vrieze fabric. No more words on this theory.

Besides fashion, heroism and Frisian nationalism have been productive angles in explaining their tribe's name as well. A first theory of this category says its name is related to Old High German freisa 'danger' and to the proto-Germanic verb fraistōn 'to fear', or to the Middle Gothic verb fraisan 'to attempt'. The tribe's name fries/frisian can then be explained as 'the brave' or 'the daring' (Zeuß 1837, see Neumann 2008). Think also of the modern Dutch verb vrezen meaning 'to fear'.

Another one in the category of heroism and nationalism is where fries/Frisian means 'free'. For this, a connection has been made with the Gothic word freis and the Old High German fri meaning 'free', freobroþur 'your own brotherly' or 'popular/loved'. The Old Germanic words frisijoz and frijaz meant something like 'free' or 'unbound' and 'brotherly' (Krogmann 1964, Ramat 1976, see Neumann 2008; Van Renswoude 2012). A fragile element of these scenarios is, as said above, we don't know whether the Frisians spoke a Germanic language at all. The chances are they did not. If not, indeed, the whole theory goes through the shredder.

Yet another heroic type of explanation is that fries/Frisian relates to weapons. The Greek words πριων ('prion') and πρισμα ('prisma') for a certain type of saw, apparently, might etymologically be related to the word fries/Frisian. It refers to a sharp, jagged tip of a harpoon, a harpoon made of bone even. Therefore, Frisians were named after these fishing gear annex weapons they carried (Loewenthal 1929, see Krogmann 1964). Well, if you say so…

A final heroic, Romantic-type explanation is that fries/Frisian originates from the Germanic goddess Freyja or Freya, or maybe from its twin-brother Freyr or Frey. Besides, the -s of fries/Frisian misses, Germanic idols are also much younger than the tribe's name. Only with the Early Middle Ages, Germanic mythology finds access to this region. Even more, it is highly doubtful there ever was a notable Germanic mythology cult and devotion of its gods, like Wodan and Donar, in the area that's the Netherlands today (Schuyf 2019). So, as a free advice, don't get carried away too much with Thor hammer pendants and stuff when imagining or re-enacting early-medieval Frisia or the Low Countries, for that matter.

Goddess Freya, by the way, was the equivalent of the Roman god Venus and later of the Christian 'deity' Virgin Mary. Beautiful Freya also wore the legendary necklace Brísingamen, of which we've boldly suggested earlier that it has been recovered in former Frisia, more precisely in the province of Friesland. See our post Ornament of the Gods found in a mound of clay.

Conservation Area Noarderleech (tidal marshland) near Blija with the Terp fan’e Takomst, by Rijkswaterstaat Noord Nederland
Conservation Area Noarderleech (tidal marshland) near Blija with the Terp fan’e Takomst, by Rijkswaterstaat Noord Nederland

A less grand and captivating explanation is that the tribe’s name fries/Frisian denotes ‘those who live on the edge of land’. The name fries/Frisian in this theory is related to the Latin prīmus, or its older form prismo, meaning ‘that which lies in the front’. Additionally, the Indo-Germanic word preis and the related Gothic fēra and Old High German fēra, fiara mean ‘side, fringe, or flank’. In other words, again, people who lived on the edge, who lived on the coast (Ten Doornkaat-Koolman 1879, Grienberger 1913, Hellqvist 1939, Törnquist 1958, see Neumann 2008). Think also of a frieze in classical Roman and Greek architecture. A long stretch construction element, often decorated with reliefs. In itself a charming theory, we think.

A final explanation, are the ones from folklore. How the three brothers Friso, Saxo, and Bruno, sons of King Sem, left the valley of the River Ganges around 300 BC in search of new land because of an imminent famine and ended up at the shores of the North Sea. Friso named his kingdom Frisia. Another folktale is that the Frisians are named after King Frisius of Friesland. Frisius was a son of the Frankish King Coglio (Dykstra 1966). What is folklore stays folklore.

One thing becomes immediately clear from the short overview above: nobody has a clue. Such is the fate of etymology. A thousand explanations for one word. And this time, we don't even know to which original language family the labelling 'fries/Frisian' belonged. Thus, all we end up with are free, flower-power bums with curly hair, perhaps with braids, dressed in woollen clothes. Hanging out on the long beaches and cutting bones into little harpoons for fishing as their main activity. Probably to catch a meal of fish to be fried on the campfire in the evening, if it did not rain too much. You’d think that there must be more to it. Well, there is.

We recently published a post on the American surname 'Fries'. It turned out that this surname had no connection to the tribe's name Fries/Frisian at all. Instead, Friesen were skilled migrant workers active in the south of Germany in the seventeenth century, who originally came from mountainous Switzerland. These Friesen workers possessed the skills and tools to cultivate swamps and turn wetlands into drier and arable land. They did so by digging ditches and raising dykes. A typical tool these trenchers used was the Friesenbeil, an axe to cut ditches and canals. Read our post From Patriot to Insurgent: John Fries and the Tax Rebellions for more about this piece of history and the surname Fries.

The etymology of the friesen workers from Switzerland has everything to do with cutting land. Like fresar el paisaje 'cutting the land' in Spanish tongue today. Compare also the French verb fraiser 'to cut' or 'to mill'. In Mid-Frisian language the verb freze exists. In Dutch the old-fashioned spelling for a router or milling cutter was a frais, and specific, very fine chisels were named fraisbeitels. The Germanic verbs freze (Mid Frisian), frezen (Dutch), fräsning (Swedish), and fräsen (German), and -more importantly- the verbs of the Romance languages fraiser (French), fresar (Spanish) and fresare (Italian) all have developed from the Vulgar Latin verb fresare. It had the meaning of milling, cutting, grooving, crushing, removing shells (Philippa, et al 2003-2009). For the joy of it, we like to add the Greek word for a milling cutter as well: φρέζα. Pronounce it and be surprised!

The link between 'cutting the land', the Swiss friesen workers, and the name of the Frisians has been made before (Krogmann 1964). According to this theory, Frisians already had adopted their tribe's name as soon as they settled on the salt marshes of what's today the Netherlands. A name expressing 'those who cut land'. From archaeological research in the '50s-'60's namely, it had already become clear that Frisians were real navvies, and dug plenty of ditches and dykes. To both drain the land from saltwater, and to collect sweet water. Only think of the excavations of the Feddersen terp in Land Wursten between 1955 and 1963. A terp settlement dating from the first century BC to the fifth century AD. The ploughed fields were bordered by natural creeks and dug ditches (Nicolay & Huisman 2022). We wrote about the culture of digging ditches before in our post Groove is in the Hearth. Ditches were that much important they were honoured with all kinds of ritual deposits during the Iron Age (Nieuwhof 2015). Also, archaeological research that's being carried out into the embanked land of Lionserpolder in province Friesland has already revealed a landscape of so-called 'linear phenomena' (e.g ditches, trenches) dating from the Late Iron Age (Feiken & Van der Heiden 2022).

Then there was the news this month (August 2022).

In province Friesland, a 2,200-year-old dyke was discovered and researched (Bakker 2022). A unique find (see image below). A dyke of 4 meters wide and 3 kilometers long was found. Its function was to -modestly- limit the frequency of floodings by the sea, while also serving as a road for the transport of wagons and cattle. But not only a dyke was discovered; tens of ditches were also found, dug at right angles to the dyke, in straight lines. Indeed, fresar el paisaje in optima forma. This digging mania was present when Roman soldiers arrived in the area. Everywhere, ditches on the flat and barren salt marshes, in plain sight.

dike system with ditches Late Iron Age near Wyns (RuG/provincie Fryslân)
archaeological research dike system with ditches Late Iron Age near Wyns (Bakker 2022)

Somehow the not-so-sexy, dirt(h)y theory of land cutting (Krogmann 1964) never became popular. It also excluded the idea that it was the Romans who could had given the tribe’s name to the Frisians. According to this theory the Frisians must have had their name as landscapers already. Maybe as early as 600 BC. Perhaps this contributed to all the juggling with alternative, etymological explanations listed above which make no heads or tails. Whilst the solution was down to earth and right under everyone’s nose, namely that 2,000 years ago the Romans came, saw ánd named: ‘those who cut the land’. It's a bit like how Freriks & Storms (2022) recently describe the people of province Groningen who reclaimed land from the Wadden Sea in modern times: "De gravende mens, de grenzen trekkende mens, de grondwerkers en landarbeiders, de mens als waterbeheerser en landbezitter (etc.)" ('The burrowing man, the border-drawing man, the navvies and land workers, man as water manager and landowner').

And, when you think of it, it is also how the sixth-century Greek historian Procopius of Caesarea described this coastal area. People living in many small settlements dotted everywhere, who are involved in sea trade, and(!) who till the soil. Read our blogpost Rowing souls of the dead to Britain: the ferryman of Solleveld for more about Procopius' description of the area.

Sure, if we're right about the Romans attributing the name to the Frisian tribe around the date of Christ, the name doesn't date back to the times the Frisians settled on the tidal marshlands five or six centuries before that. Hence, the tribe's name turns out to be quite a bit younger. Well, you win some, you lose some. And connecting the use of land with group identity isn't surprising. Since time immemorial, ditches (but also banks, walls, hedges, and so on) embodied control over resources through agricultural property rights. They gave, among other expressions, social relationships, status, and communal identity. In fact, identity originally was determined by the land the group possessed (Oosthuizen 2019).

As a side remark, also the Danes have been named after the landscape they dwelled at. Danes or Daner in the Danish language, is probably related to the Old High German word tanar meaning 'sand bank', and with the proto-Germanic word den meaning 'low ground'. In other words, the Flatlanders (Shippey 2022). Indeed, the landscape of Denmark. Compare also the Netherlands meaning 'low lands', and the current nickname of the Dutch, namely Lowlanders, with their yearly music festival Lowlands at Biddinghuizen in the province of Flevoland.

The fact that history repeated itself with the Swiss friesen migrant workers in Germany in the early modern period isn't by chance but rather confirmation of the theory the Romans were responsible for naming a people after what they saw them doing most strikingly. Just like the people in Germany and Switzerland a few centuries back, who were named Friesen 'those who cut land' too. The traditional construct that the Swiss friesen workers were named after the Frisians proper, who were known for their skills in building dykes and digging canals, isn't correct. It's a reasoning in retrospect. Both the Swiss friesen workers in Germany and the Frisian people living along the Wadden Sea coast 2,000 years ago got their Latin-origin names for the very same reason. For the same economic activity: cutting marshland in straight lines with ditches, to route excess water through the land. Maybe not a very heroic explanation, but no less praiseworthy either.


Note 1 – Below is a passage from the Saga of Egil, an Icelandic text written around 1230. It recounts the adventures of a Viking named Egil in the year 956, including a raid on Frisia. It describes how Frisia looked; flat land with ditches everywhere. It was, by the way, a bit of a spontaneous and hence chaotic raid. Initially, the Frisians went on the run, but soon they regrouped and made the 300 Vikings retreat to their three longships and leave for the sea with their tails between their legs. Very Egil, not agile.

Þar var jafnlendi og sléttur miklar; díki voru skorin víða um landið og stóð í vatn. Höfðu þeir lukt um akra sína og eng, en í sumum stöðum voru settir staurar stórir yfir díkin, þar er fara skyldi; voru brúar og lagðir yfir viðir.

There [Frisia] were great flatlands and plains; the land was cut into many parts surrounded by ditches filled with water. They [Egil cs] had gone about their [Frisians] fields and meadows, but at some places large stakes were placed over the ditches, there where you should go; bridges were covered with planks.

Notice that the Icelandic word dík means ‘ditch’. The etymology of dyke/dike and ditch is explained as one and the same activity. When you dig a ditch you create a dyke at the same time.

Note 2 – We still have to look into the name Dr. Fraiser Crane.

Suggested music

Bakker, M., Waarkhanden (2018)

Frizzle Sizzle, Alles heeft een ritme (1986)

Men at Work, Down Under (1981)

Further reading

Bakker, M., Opgraving van een lage kade uit de late ijzertijd en Romeinse tijd in de Wynserpolder (2022)

Ballas, H., Die Wiederbesiedlung Scheidts nach 1670 durch Einwanderer aus der Schweiz (1996)

Boers, E., Archeologen vinden bij Wyns een 3 kilometer lange dijk van 2200 jaar oud: zoiets is nog nooit eerder gevonden (2022)

Charnock, R.S., Local Etymology: A Derivative Dictionary of Geographical Names (1859)

Ciriacono, S. (ed), Eau et développement dans l’Europe moderne; Knottnerus, O., Culture and society in the Frisian and German North Sea Coastal Marshes (1500-1800) (2004)

Dykstra, W., Uit Frieslands volksleven. Van vroeg en later (1966)

Eijnatten, van J. & Lieburg, van F., Nederlandse religiegeschiedenis (2005)

Feiken, R. & Heiden, van der M., De Lionserpolder: een cultuurlandschap van duizende jaren oud (2022)

Freriks, K. & Storms, M., Grensverkenningen. Langs oude grenzen in Nederland (2022)

Grimm, J., Deutsche Grammatik (1840)

Krogmann, W., Der Name der Friesen (1964)

Looijenga, A. & Popkema, A. & Slofstra, B., Een meelijwekkend volk. Vreemden over Friezen van de oudheid tot de kerstening (2017)

Neumann, G., “Friesen”, in Namenstudien zum Altgermanischen (2008)

Nicolay, J. & Huisman, H., Ploughing the salt marsh. Cultivated horizons and their relation to the chronology and techniques of ploughing (2022)

Nieuwhof, A., Eight human skulls in a dung heap and more. Ritual practice in the terp region of the northern Netherlands 600 BC-AD 300 (2015)

Oosthuizen, S., The emergence of the English (2019)

Philippa, M., Debrabandere, F., Quak, A., Schoonheim, T. & Sijs, van der N., Etymologisch Woordenboek van het Nederlands (2003-2009)

Renswoude, van O., Namen van Nederlandse stammen: Frisii (2012)

Robinson, O.W., Old English and its closest relatives. A Survey of the Earliest Germanic Languages (1992)

Schrijver, P., Frisian between the Roman and the Early-Medieval Periods. Language contact, Celts and Romans (2017)

Schuyf, J., Heidense heiligdommen. Zichtbare sporen van een verloren verleden (2019)

Shippey, T., Beowulf and the North before the Vikings (2022)

Sijs, van der N., Nederlandse woorden wereldwijd (2010)

Veen, van P.A.F. & Sijs, van der N. (1997), Etymologisch woordenboek: de herkomst van onze woorden (1997)

Vries, de J., Nederlands Etymologisch Woordenboek (1971)


bottom of page