• reindeer •
Pronunciation: reyn-deer • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: A deer (Rangifer tarandus) with large racks of fuzzy antlers found in and around the Arctic Circle. In Lapland (Finland) the Saami people live by herding and breeding reindeer for their milk, hide, meat, and other products.
Notes: Like deer itself, this good word does not mark its plural: one reindeer, two reindeer, millions of reindeer, though some dictionaries have caved in and allow reindeers.
In Play: Those of us who live outside the Arctic Circle see very few reindeer other than the cutouts on lawns this time of the year. This reduces the opportunity to put this good word in play very often but it doesn't preclude its use: "Grandpa and Grandma came in with so many presents I looked out the window to see if reindeer had brought them."
Word History: In the early 19th century Saint Nicholas was still riding on horseback. That was his traditional means of transportation until 1823 when Clement Moore wrote his famous book, A Visit from Saint Nicholas (now more familiar for its first line, The Night Before Christmas). Today's word was imported from Old Norse hreindýri from hreinn "horn" + dýri "animal". The Swedes today call it a rendjur or just a ren, while the Danes say rensdyr and the Germans, Rentier. In Middle English the word deer meant simply "animal", like its German cousin, Tier, today. So, when Shakespeare speaks of, "mice and rats, and such small deer" for Edgar's diet in King Lear, he is not upgrading the menu suggested by the first two words.
Use this forum to discuss past Good Words.
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Most of the Sami live not in Finland (ca 6000), but in Norway (ca 40000) and Sweden (ca 20000), with an even smaller group in Russia (ca 2000). While the term «rendjur» can indeed be found as a subentry under «ren» in SAOB, it is not commonly used in contemporary Swedish ; neither my tattered workhorse (ren ?) Illustrerad svensk ordbok with more than 1900 pages nor Olof Östergren's five-volume Nusvensk Ordbok list it, and a Google search turns up only 60 Swedish examples. Indeed, before performing this search, I had never heard nor seen the term used. So if you turn up in (Swedish) Lappland and want to enjoy a ride in a pulka or an ackja drawn by this animal, impress the locals by referring to it as a «ren» !...
- M. Henri Day
- Grand Panjandrum
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