Reindeer, Rangifer tarandus, are a species of deer native to the arctic and subarctic of Europe, Siberia, and North America. The word is a borrowing from the Scandinavian languages—it’s hreindýri in Old Icelandic and rendjur in Swedish. (The usual word in Swedish is simply ren, but rendjur is an older form.) The first element of reindeer is from the Germanic root rein, which is of uncertain origin, but is likely a reference to the creature’s antlers. Deer is a Germanic root meaning animal or beast, which only later specialized to mean the species of ruminant mammals. So the literal meaning of reindeer is likely “horned beast.”

The word makes one appearance in Old English, in an account of a voyage to Norway that is found in the translation of Orosius’s history:

Þa deor hi hatað hranas; þara wæron syx stælhranas, ða beoð swyðe dyre mid Finnum, for ðæm hy foð þa wildan hranas mid.

(They call those deer “hran”; six of them were decoy-hran, which are very dear among the Finns, for they catch the wild hran with them.)

The hran in this passage is an Anglicization of hrein.

This early use of the word did not catch on, however, and it doesn’t appear again in English until the fifteenth century, when it appears c. 1440 in Malory’s Morte Arthure:

The roo and þe rayne-dere reklesse thare ronnen.

(The roe and the reindeer run carefree there.)

The shorter form rein, without the -deer, was also common in English once, but has faded from use.

The association of reindeer with Christmas and Santa Claus dates to early nineteenth century New York. It was Clement Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” that firmly established the eight reindeer that pulled Santa’s sleigh in the cultural consciousness, but Moore was not the first to depict a reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh.

In 1821, New York printer William Gilley published a booklet that included an anonymous poem with the lines:

Old Santeclaus with much delight
His reindeer drives this frosty night,
O’er chimneytops, and tracks of snow,
To bring his yearly gifts to you.

The drawing accompanying the poem shows a single reindeer pulling Santa’s sleigh. 

The Children’s Friend, number 3. “A New-Year’s Present, to the Little Ones from Five to Twelve,” part 3, New York: William B. Gilley, 1821.

Oxford English Dictionary Online, third edition, December 2009, s. v. rein, n.2; reindeer, n.

Whipp, Deborah. “The History of Santa’s Reindeer.” n. d.

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