Q: This question is too late for Thanksgiving, but you may find it useful for Christmas or New Year’s: Is the verb “dress” (to gut a dead deer) related to the noun “dressing” (the stuffing in a turkey)?
A: Yes, to “dress” a deer is etymologically related to the “dressing” that’s stuffed in a holiday turkey. And both senses are related to the verb “dress” (to put on clothes) and the noun “dress” (the garment).
All those senses are ultimately derived from directus, Latin for “straight” and the source of the English word “direct,” according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.
So how did a Latin word for straight, you may ask, twist and turn in English to give us terms for stuffing a turkey and gutting a hunted deer in the field?
When Middle English borrowed the verb “dress” from Old French in the 1300s, the Oxford English Dictionary says, it meant to straighten, erect, prepare, or arrange. (In Old French, dresser meant to arrange.)
The “prepare” sense of “dress” in Middle English included “preparing for use as food, by making ready to cook” as well as seasoning, according to written examples in the OED.
This example is from Richard Cœur de Lyon, a Middle English romance written sometime before 1400: “Or ye come the flesch was dressyd” (“Before your coming, the flesh was dressed”).
And here’s a 1430 citation from a Middle English cookbook: “Put yn þe Oystrys þer-to, and dresse it forth” (“Put the oysters in [the pot of broth] and dress it”).
This example is from Nicholas Lichefield’s 1582 translation of a book by the Portuguese historian Fernão Lopes de Castanheda: “To dresse their meate with salt water.”
The food sense of the verb “dress” gave us the noun “dressing,” which the OED defines as “the seasoning substance used in cooking; stuffing; the sauce, etc., used in preparing a dish, a salad, etc.”
The earliest Oxford example is a 1504 entry in the Records of the Borough of Nottingham: “For floure and peper, and dressing.”
The food sense also gave us the adjective “dressed,” which refers to that which “has been prepared for eating; covered or mixed through with a sauce or dressing.”
The earliest OED example is from Pylgrimage of Perfection, a 1526 religious treatise by William Bonde: “Delycates [delicacies] or denty [dainty, or tasty] dressed meates.”
Getting back to “dress,” all of the Oxford examples for the culinary sense of the verb refer to the kind of preparation that one would do in a kitchen, not out in the field.
However, the OED has an entry for “field-dress,” which it describes as a “chiefly N. Amer.” verb meaning “to remove the internal organs from (hunted game) soon after the kill, primarily to aid the cooling of the carcass.”
The dictionary’s earliest citation for the usage is from Game in the Desert, a 1939 book by Jack O’Connor about hunting in the American Southwest and northern Mexico:
“For a hunting knife the sportsman should choose a good substantial pocket knife…. With it he can field-dress his game, bore holes in leather, [etc.].”
The most recent OED example is from the Nov. 6, 2008, issue of the New York Review of Books: “Another one of those cool Harvard Law Review cats who can’t field-dress a chicken, much less a moose.”
Although the verbal phrase “field-dress” may be more popular in the US than in the UK, as the OED asserts, we’ve found examples for the verb “dress” itself used in that sense on both sides of the Atlantic since the 1800s.
In Woodstock, an 1826 novel by Sir Walter Scott, for example, poachers “flayed and dressed the deer, and quartered him, and carried him off, and left the hide and horns.”
And in A Snow Storm in Humboldt, a story in the November 1892 issue of the Overland Monthly in San Francisco, a neighbor gives the narrator one of three deer he’s shot.
“He stayed but a few minutes,” the narrator says, “then I washed my dishes, dressed the deer, chopped wood, brought water from the spring, and prepared supper.”
Interestingly, the most common sense now of the verb “dress” (to put on one’s clothes) didn’t show up until the 1600s, according to citations in the OED.
We’ll skip ahead to this example from Henry Fielding’s 1749 novel Tom Jones: “He had barely Time left to dress himself.”
The use of the verb in the sense of dressing someone else, not oneself, showed up earlier. Here’s an example from the York Mystery Plays (circa 1440), a Middle English cycle of religious pageants: “Dresse vs in riche array.”
The noun “dress,” used to mean a one-piece garment worn by women and girls, showed up in the 1600s. The earliest OED citation is from The Fancies, Chast and Noble, a 1638 comedy by John Ford: “Your Dresses blab your vanities.”
Finally, here are some additional meanings for “dress” and “dressing” that evolved from the original senses of the verb in Middle English: to “dress” a wound (1471), to “dress” a garden with manure (1526), to “dress up” (1674), the “dressings” on a wound (1713), to “dress” for dinner (1741), to “dress” a shop window (1843), and to give someone a “dressing down” (1876).