The Maelstrom on a clear day. The islands of Mosken and Værøy can be seen in the distance.

The Maelstrom on a clear day
(The islands of Mosken and Værøy can be seen in the distance.)
photograph: Lofoten Islands




This English noun originated in the early-modern Dutch maelstrom (now maalstroom). It was originally a proper name designating a strong and dangerous current flowing between two of the Lofoten islands off the northwest coast of Norway, which was supposed to suck in and destroy all vessels within a wide radius. Its Norwegian name is Moskstraumen or Moskenstraumen.

This Dutch noun has also been borrowed by French as maelstrom, by Danish as malstrøm, by Swedish as malström, by Norwegian as malstrøm and by German as Mahlstrom.


Literally meaning whirlpool, Dutch maelstrom is from the verb malen, to grind, to whirl round, and the noun stroom, stream.

The latter word is related to English stream and German Strom, and the former to meal in the sense of the edible part of any grain or pulse ground to powder.

Of Germanic origin, meal is related to Dutch meel, German Mehl, Icelandic mjöl, Swedish mjöl and Danish mel.

All the major Germanic languages except English have a derivative verb with the sense to grind: Dutch malen, German mahlen, Icelandic mala, Swedish mala, Danish male and Norwegian male.

These Germanic words are from a root shared by Latin mola, millstone, mill, molere, to grind, molaris, molar tooth, and ancient Greek μύλη (mule), μύλος (mulos), millstone, mill, and μύλαι (mulai), grinders, molar teeth.

Noun uses of the adjective molinus, the Late Latin molinum and molina, meaning mill, are the origins, respectively, of French moulin and English mill.


The original Maelstrom was first mentioned in English as Malestrand by the traveller and writer Anthony Jenkinson in the account of his voyage to Russia from 1557 to 1560. He probably confused Maelstrom with the name Malestrand, now Marstrand, in southern Sweden:

We went north and by West, because we would not come too nigh the land, and running that course foure houres, we discouered, and had sight of Rost Islands, ioining to the main land of Finmarke. Thus continuing our course along the coast of Norway and Finmark, the 27 day we tooke the Sunne, being as farre shot as Lofoot, and had the latitude in 69 degrees. And the same day in the afternoone appeared ouer our heads a rainebow, like a semicircle, with both ends vpwarde. Note that there is between the said Rost Islands & Lofoot, a whirle poole called Malestrand, which from halfe ebbe vntill halfe flood, maketh such a terrible noise, that it shaketh the ringes in the doores of the inhabitants houses of the sayd Islands tenne miles off. Also if there commeth any Whale within the current of the same, they make a pitifull crie. Moreouer, if great trees be caried into it by force of streams, and after with the ebbe be cast out againe, the ends and boughs of them haue bene so beaten, that they are like the stalkes of hempe that is bruised.

In the 19th century, Edgar Allan Poe in A Descent into the Maelström (1841) and Jules Verne in Vingt mille lieues sous les mers (Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea – 1870) described, with some exaggeration, the dangers of the Norwegian current.

The first known figurative use of maelstrom is in Sartor Resartus. The Life and Opinions of Herr Teufelsdröckh (1834) by the Scottish writer, biographer and historian Thomas Carlyle (1795-1881):

Certainly a most involved, self-secluded, altogether enigmatic nature, this of Teufelsdröckh! Here, however, we gladly recall to mind that once we saw him laugh; once only, perhaps it was the first and last time in his life; but then such a peal of laughter, enough to have awakened the Seven Sleepers! It was of Jean Paul’s doing*: some single billow in that vast World-Mahlstrom of Humour, with its heaven-kissing coruscations, which is now, alas, all congealed in the frost of death!

* Jean Paul (1763-1825), born Johann Paul Friedrich Richter, German novelist noted for his romantic novels, including Hesperus (1795), and for comic works such as Titan (1800-3)

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