English English language Etymology Expression Language Linguistics Usage Word origin Writing

Oh, dear! Oh, deer!

Q: I’ve just begun The Age of Deer, a book by Erika Howsare that explores the connections between deer and humans. Are the words “dear” and “deer” also related, or merely two different words with the same pronunciation?

A: The short answer is that “dear” and “deer” may very well be etymologically related, not just homonyms, but the evidence isn’t conclusive.

In Old English, the language spoken from roughly 450 to 1150, the noun “deer” (spelled dior or deor, and occasionally dear) meant something like “beast” and referred to wild animals in general, especially four-legged ones. The usual word for the animals with antlered males was heort or heorot, ancestor of “hart.”

Meanwhile, the adjective “dear” came in two versions: deore (beloved or valuable) and deor (brave, ferocious, savage, or wild, an obsolete sense apparently associated with the noun “deer”).

Linguists have disagreed over whether deore and deor were two separate adjectives or one adjective with two senses. If Old English had just one adjective, then the modern words “dear” and “deer” would probably be related.

The Oxford English Dictionary says both deore and deor come from prehistoric Germanic, an ancient language reconstructed by linguists, but it adds that deor is “of uncertain etymology.”

However, the linguist Anatoly Lieberman argues in a May 19, 2021, post on the blog of Oxford University Press, publisher of the OED, that the two terms come from the same ancient source:

“Some good authorities hesitatingly (very hesitatingly!) admit that Old English dēor(e) and dēor are two senses of the same word. In my opinion, both their hesitation and the common statement ‘origin unknown,’ applied to dēor ‘savage, fierce,’ are groundless.”

Liberman says, “it is probably reasonable to assume that the most ancient meaning of the adjective dear was ‘requiring a strong effort’; hence ‘fierce, wild; hard to obtain; costly; precious,’ and of course ‘dear,’ whether ‘expensive’ or ‘priceless.’ ”

“According to what we know about the Old Germanic ethos,” he adds, “monsters and heroes were believed to be endowed with similar qualities, but what was ‘noble, valorous, praiseworthy’ in the hero was ‘ferocious, deadly’ in his enemy.”

If Lieberman is right—and we hesitantly agree with him—then “dear” and “deer” are related.

In the first OED citation for the noun “deer,” it’s spelled dear and means a large beast: “Se camal þæt micla dear” (“The camel that great deer”). From an interlinear Old English gloss, or translation, of the Latin in the Lindisfarne Gospels, Luke 18:25.

Here’s a full version of the verse, in Early Modern English, from the King James Version: “For it is easier for a camel to go through a needle’s eye, than for a rich man to enter into the kingdom of God.”

The dictionary’s earliest example for the noun “deer” used in its modern sense (as the horned animal that’s often hunted) is from Layamon’s Brut, a chronicle of Britain written in Middle English sometime before 1200: “To huntien after deoren.”

The OED notes an earlier Old English passage that mentions hrana (reindeer) among a large group of wild animals: “syx hund. Þa deor” (“those 600 hundred deer”).

As for the adjective “dear,” the dictionary says the affectionate sense gradually evolved in Old English from “esteemed” to “beloved,” but “the  passage of the one notion into the other is too gradual to admit of their separation.”

The OED’s first citation (with “dear” describing Jesus) is from Juliana, an Old English poem by Cynewulf about the martyrdom of Saint Juliana of Nicomedia. In this passage, Juliana asks all of humankind to pray for her:

“meotud bidde þæt me heofona helm helpe gefremme, meahta waldend, on þam miclan dæge, fæder, frofre gæst, in þa frecnan tid, dæda demend, ond se deora sunu” (“pray to the creator that the guardian of heaven, the wielder of powers, the father, the holy spirit, the judge of deeds, and his dear son may help me in that time of terror, on that greatest of days”).

Moving on to the costly sense of the adjective, the first OED citation, which we’ve expanded here, is from an entry for the year 1044 in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle:

“On ðisum gere wæs swyðe mycel hunger ofer eall Englaland and corn swa dyre swa nan man ær ne gemunde  swa þæt se sester hwætes eode to LX pen” (“In this year there was very great hunger over all England and corn [grain] so dear as no man remembered before so that a sester [a dry measure] of wheat went for 60 pence”).

Over the years, the adjective has taken on many other uses, including to fondly or respectfully address someone (circa 1250), to mean scarce (before 1330), to address the recipient of a letter (c. 1402), and to describe money that can be borrowed only at a high interest rate (1878).

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