Fun Etymology Tuesday – Reindeer

One week closer to Christmas! And, as promised, another Christmas-related word: reindeer!

Of course, most of us know the story of Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer and Santa’s request for aid on a foggy Christmas Eve, but where does the word reindeer come from?

Well, most likely, it came from my own little area of the world: Scandinavia. Borrowed into English around 1400, it is most likely from Old Norse hreindyri, meaning reindeer.

This word can be divided in two: hrein and dyr(i).

Hrein– is from the word hreinn, the usual name of the animal. You can see it preserved in the modern descendants of Old Norse (Danish, Norwegian, Swedish and Icelandic) today:

DanishNorwegianSwedishIcelandic
Ren (or rensdyr)Rein (or reinsdyr)RenHreindýr

Interestingly, you can’t actually say *rendjur in Swedish, referring to the reindeer, which you seem to be able to do in the other descendants of Old Norse. As a native Swedish speaker, trust me, it sounds really weird and is certainly incorrect.

I wonder why that is.

Anyway. Hreinn comes from Proto-Germanic *khrinda, which is also the source of the Old English word hran, also meaning reindeer. *khrinda likely comes from PIE *krei, from the root *ker-, meaning horn or head. That totally makes sense; have you ever seen the horns of a reindeer? They’re magnificent.

Image result for reindeer

The PIE word may also be related to Greek krios, meaning ram, and some sources further connect it to words in Sami and Finnish.

Dyr simply means animal and corresponds to Old English deor (which later became deer). From Proto-Germanic *deuzam, meaning (wild) animal. The Proto-Germanic word likely comes from PIE *dheusom, which, rather unspecifically, simply means creature that breathes (and isn’t human).

And that is the story of reindeer!  

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