Deer can be traced back to the Old English word deor, but the word’s use in Old English was somewhat different than deer’s is today. To the Anglo-Saxons, a deor was not necessarily the gentle, forest creature signified by the modern deer, but the word could be used for any undomesticated, four-legged animal, including fabulous beasts of legend. The word carried a connotation of wildness and ferocity, not something we today associate with Bambi. Deer is a cognate (sister word) of the modern German Tier, “animal.”
For example, the Lindisfarne Gospels, a early eighth-century illuminated Latin manuscript with tenth-century English glosses inserted between the Latin lines, defines the Latin camelum as “se camal þæt micla dear” (the camel, that great deer). The passage that is glossed is Luke 18:25, the verse about how it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than a rich man to enter heaven. We would normally consider camels to be a domesticated animal, but to a tenth-century Anglo-Saxon, a camel would be more like the fabulous basilisk or dragon than a horse, and therefore would qualify as a deor. And because camels were such unfamiliar beasts to those in England in that day, a gloss was needed to explain the word. Even further afield is this from a twelfth-century homily that uses deor to refer to sea creatures:
on þan feorðen dæige, ealle sælice deor & fissces heo æteowigieð bufe þan yðen & bellgigeð swa swa mid mænnisscre reorde.
(On the fourth day, all the beasts and fish of the sea appeared above the waves and bellowed, as if with a human voice.)
The meaning of deer narrowed in the Middle English period to the sense that we know today. The Normans imported words like beast and animal into English from French, and there wasn’t a need for another word with the same meaning, so deer became more specialized, referring only to Bambi and his kin. By around 1500 and the Early Modern period, the old, general meaning of deer was gone.
“deor, noun,” Dictionary of Old English, A–G Online, University of Toronto, 2007
“deer, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989
“der, n.,” Middle English Dictionary, 2013
Copyright 1997-2015, by David Wilton