Late one night in my apartment, I took to wandering the corners of the Internet that interested me the most. Along my travels, I stumbled upon the etymology of “deer.”
The history of the word deer seems more important now than ever, considering that whitetail farming has turned into a multi-million dollar business, high-fence deer hunting operations continue booking high-dollar trips, hunting television shows promote the idea of “hit-lists,” and the most fortunate hunters among us lock away private deer leases with the vehemence of oil barons hot on a strike.
What exactly does “deer” mean to us anymore?
Before we decide, maybe we should know how the word originated.
Deer comes from the Old English word “deor” which was used to describe any wild animal or beast, as opposed to “feoh” which was used to describe domestic animals like cattle. A handful of other languages have versions of the word deer too: Old Frisian, dar; Dutch, dire; Old Norse, dyr; and German, tier. All of these terms essentially translate to wild animal.
Sometime after 1500, Middle English speakers transformed “deor” to “der,” which was used to describe wild, four-legged herbivores. Then modern English finally brought the meaning of deer to include only members of the cervidae family (moose, elk, caribou, mule deer, and 43 other species around the world). But for most of us here in the U.S. “deer” now almost exclusively means whitetail (whether it’s running wild on mountain side or eating corn behind a fence).
Of course “deer” isn’t the only word to change its meaning over time and I’m not suggesting we all take a course in Old English, but here’s one interesting side-note in this etymology lesson. “Hart” was the Old English word for what we now take to mean deer. But some 500 years ago deer hunters in England and Scotland started using the word “der” instead of “hart” to describe their favorite wild quarry. In other words, it was the deer’s wildness that made it a “deer” in the first place.
So the next time somebody boastfully shows you a photo of a buck killed behind a high fence, compliment him on his trophy feoh.