By Mark Sundaram
Happy holidays, and welcome to the Endless Knot! Today we’re taking to the skies, with everyone’s favourite bunch of flying reindeer/ruminants!
Let’s start with the word reindeer itself. The second element is simple enough, right? A deer is is a member of the family cervidae, a type of ruminant mammal. Except the word deer didn’t always refer to that animal. The Old English form of the word is deor, and could be used to refer to any sort of animal. This use may have even survived into Early Modern English, as in the oft quoted line from Shakespeare’s King Lear “mice and rats and such small deer” though this may be something of a joke as the line is said by Edgar pretending to be a madman. Interestingly the Proto-Indo-European root of deer means “to blow” or “puff” or “rise in a cloud as dust, vapour or smoke”, and has a great many English derivatives such as fume, thyme (in reference to its strong smell), dizzy, deaf, dumb, and dummkopf, literally “dumb-head” in German (in reference to defective perception or wits), and dove (in reference to its smoky colour). So literally then a deer is a breathing thing, and the world animal, from Latin, has the same semantic progression, coming from a root meaning “breath”. And isn’t it appropriate that reindeer is a cognate of dove, another Christmas-related animal that frequently appears as a tree ornament, symbolizing peace.
But what about the first part of reindeer? Well, it has nothing to do with reins as in the harness for a horse, though Santa does use reins to steer his reindeer. In fact it’s a reference to the antlers, from a root *ker- meaning “horn”, which also gives us the word horn, as well as the cladistic family name cervidae from Latin cervus “deer”. Indeed that first element as Old English hran and Old Norse hreinn were used by themselves to refer to reindeer. Another word we get from the root *ker- is hart, not the blood-pumping organ, but the word for a male deer. The Old English form of this word is heorot, which not only referred to hart the animal, but also to the hall of the Danes under king Hrothgar in the epic poem Beowulf, described as “high and horn-gabled” either because the gables are adorned with horns or look like antlers.
Speaking of antlers, one of the interesting things about reindeer is that both males and females grow antlers, the only species of cervids that is true of. What’s more, the male reindeer lose their antlers after the mating season in late fall, whereas the females keep them until they calve in the following summer, and the antlered females have the highest rank in the feeding hierarchy during that period, useful since they’re gestating offspring. So if you see a picture of Santa’s reindeer with antlers, you can be sure that they’re all female!
But before we leave behind the etymology of reindeer, I should point out that another word for the species, usually used in Canada, is caribou, coming from the Mi’kmaq word qalipu, which means literally “it shovels snow” on account of the fact that the animals kick the snow in order to feed on the moss and grass underneath. So we should all be referring to them as caribou since Santa, at the North Pole, lives in Canada. He even has a Canadian postal code HOH OHO, where you can send your wish list to Santa and get a reply!
So getting to Santa’s reindeer in particular, well originally they weren’t. Reindeer that is. Earlier depictions of Ol’ St Nick would have him going about on foot or on a white horse. In fact still to this day in the Dutch tradition, Sinterklaas rides a white horse called Amerigo. It wasn’t until an obscure 1821 anonymous poem published in a New York magazine called The Children’s Friend that Santa was connected with reindeer, but just one reindeer. The poem goes “Old Santeclaus with much delight / His reindeer drives this frosty night, / O’er chimney-tops, and tracks of snow, / to bring his yearly gifts to you”.
Now the first question is why reindeer? Where did the New York poet get that idea, as it wasn’t part of the traditional Saint Nicholas legends, and New York is a long way from reindeer. Well one suggestion is that it might come from old Lappland legends of a kind of Old Man Winter who would drive his reindeer down from the mountains bringing the snow with them. Note though that this is a general winter figure not a Christmas gift giver. But the name of the Finnish Christmas gift giver, now more or less conflated with the North American Santa Claus, Joulupukki literally means “Yule goat”. Yule was originally the old Germanic pagan, specifically Norse, midwinter festival that eventually got subsumed into Christmas, when Christianity arrived on the scene. In Norse myth the Thor’s chariot is pulled by two goats called Tanngrisnir (teeth-barer) and Tanngnjóstr (teeth-grinder), and it has been pointed out that these names are sometimes rendered in English as Cracker and Gnasher, perhaps reminiscent of the first two reindeer names Dasher and Dancer. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves here. In any case, I suppose goats are notionally closer to reindeer than horses. Maybe?
The second question is why eight reindeer? That 1821 poem only mentions one, so how did the number grow? Well you may have already guessed that it was in the famous poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas” (actually titled “A Visit from St Nicholas”), that we first hear of “eight tiny reindeer” who all have names, Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen. Now leaving aside the indication that they, and St Nick himself, were tiny (guess that’s how he fit down the chimneys), why specifically eight reindeer, and why those names? To answer this, we need to take a quick look at the poem’s author. Originally published anonymously in 1823 and later attributed to the scholar Clement Clarke Moore, professor of Greek and Hebrew, and also writer of a huge ancient Hebrew dictionary, the poem in question has also been claimed as the work of Revolutionary War veteran Henry Livingston, Jr. Now although the style of “A Visit from St Nicholas” seems more in keeping with the other poetry of Livingston than with that of Moore, I’m going with the usual ascription to Moore, because Livingston never claimed the work as his own, only his family well after his death, while Moore himself did claim it as his own, though somewhat diffidently as if he wasn’t too proud of it. But also because of those eight reindeer. As I said, Moore was a rather learned man, and it’s been pointed out that the reindeer names contain a number of rather learned allusions. And in addition to the possible goats of Thor I mentioned earlier, it may be a reference to another Norse god, Odin, that gives us the number eight. You see Odin,who is sometimes known by the name Jólnir or “Yule-figure”, is one of the possible forerunners of the Christmas gift-giver figure. And Odin rode an eight-legged horse named Sleipnir (which literally means “slippy”). Eight legs, eight reindeer? Well, let’s have a look at the names of those eight reindeer.
First up is Dasher. Dash probably comes from a Scandinavian source meaning “beat, strike”, hence dash to pieces, as well as “move quickly”, hence the hundred-yard dash. The punctuation mark dash comes from the notion of a hastily written pen stroke, and from there the expletive dash it all because the curse word damn would be reproduced in print as d—m so as not to corrupt the innocent. A dashboard was the barrier in front of a carriage or sleigh which prevented mud from being dashed up from the horses hooves and ruining the clothes of those riding in the vehicle. When the automobile or horseless carriage was invented, the dashboard was kept to protect the passengers from the dirt of the wheels, and once the engine was placed in front of the car, the dashboard protected the passengers from the heat and oil of the motor, and eventually the car’s various instruments were located on the dashboard, which has kept the same name in spite of the changes in meaning. The first mass-produced automobile, the Oldsmobile Curved Dash, was so named because its dashboard was curved resembling that of a sleigh. I suppose Santa’s sleigh must have a dashboard too, though presumably he doesn’t have to worry about mud, since his sleigh flies. Another related word is dashing meaning “fashionable and showy” as in a dashing young man. This use comes from the 18th century colloquial expression to cut a dash, which I suppose you might want to do on the dance floor.
Speaking of which, next up is Dancer. The etymology of dance is a bit uncertain. The word comes into English from Old French danser. Ultimately it either comes from Frankish *dintjan “to tremble”, or from the Proto-Indo-European root *ten- meaning “to pull or stretch”, suggesting dancing in a line or file. I guess the reindeer are stretched out in lines when pulling Santa’s sleigh, but really they should be dancing in a circle, as the word carol, possibly coming from Latin corolla meaning “little crown”, originally referred to a kind of circle dance performed to a particular type of lyric song. So I suppose Dancer was not only a dancer but also a singer. Appropriate since from that *ten- root meaning “to stretch” we also get the words tone, from the idea of a taut string on a musical instrument, and thus baritone, as well as tenor. Now I wonder if Dancer was a tenor or a baritone…
I suppose prance might suggest a motion similar to dancing, appropriate since Prancer is our next reindeer. Funny thing is, historically speaking Prancer shouldn’t be a reindeer, but a horse. The word prancer was originally, from the 1560s, thieves’ slang for a horse. Again, it’s a bit uncertain where prance comes from, but has been possibly linked to Middle English pranken “to show off” from Middle Dutch pronken, and thereby related to the word prank. But lest you think that pranking is rather more related to another holiday, April Fool’s Day, Christmas too has its own tradition of pranking and misrule. During the late middle ages and early modern periods, there was the tradition of appointing a peasant as the Lord of Misrule, a kind of mock king, who oversaw the feast of fools during Christmastide. This would generally involve drunkenness, wild partying, disguises, and other types of topsy-turvy revelry. It’s been suggested, though not without some debate, that this custom dates back to the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, celebrated at that same time of year, which featured gift-giving and a carnival atmosphere in which masters served their slaves.
Well, if Prancer should have been a horse, then Vixen should have been a fox. And a girl. Because you see vixen is the feminine form of fox. In Old English, as in modern English the, male fox was called a fox, whereas the female was called a fyxen, with the feminine ending -en causing the vowel to mutate, as also seen in Old English pairs like wulf (male) and wylfen (female). Guess that’s further evidence along with the antlers that the reindeer are all female! As for the root of the words vixen and fox, this is a matter of some debate. We know it can be traced back as far as Proto-Germanic *fuhsaz (feminine *fuhsinjo), as there are cognates meaning “fox” in the various Germanic languages. But *fuhsaz does not come from the usual word for fox in Proto-Indo-European, *wl̥p-ē-, which leads to Latin vulpes, and thereby the scientific name for the fox. So where did fox and its cognates come from? Well, it seems to be a taboo replacement. Instead of using the fox’s real name, which might invoke the pestilent creature itself, a taboo replacement name is used instead. This is a common process with animal names, such as with the word bear, which literally means “brown one”. The original Proto-Indo-European root referring to the bear does survive in Latin ursus, giving us the constellations Ursa Major and Ursa Minor, which mark out the arctic, a word which comes from the Greek derivative of that same root. Well, Santa and the reindeer do live in the arctic at the north pole after all. Interestingly, the word bear gets swapped out again in the name of the hero Beowulf, whose name literally means “bee-wolf”, a stand-in for the word bear. So all that being said, what is the literal meaning of the word fox? Well there are a number of suggestions, but the most likely is that it’s a reference to the fox’s distinctive tail, coming from the root *puk- meaning “tail”. By the way in another instance of a sly and foxy name replacement, in French, which originally had a word descended from Latin vulpes, the standard word is now renard, which comes from a popular folk character in medieval literature Reynard, an anthropomorphic trickster figure who is always up to no good. Indeed the slyness of the fox is its main cultural association. I suppose that might lie behind the compound word foxfire, a kind of eerily bioluminescent fungus which is associated with the will-o’-the-wisp and the original sense of jack-o’-lantern, mischievous fairies that lead nighttime travellers to their doom, unless the first element in foxfire is actually Old French for “fool”, suggesting something of the Latin name ignis fatuus “foolish fire” which also refers to that swamp light phenomenon. But this is all taking us again to another holiday, Halloween, so let’s return to our foxy roots, specifically the one that gives us Latin vulpes. It is so close to the root that lies behind English wolf and Latin lupus, that there appears to be something linguistically sly going on behind the scenes, and indeed in some of the words for foxes and wolves, the species referred to occasionally overlap. And as a final point on the cultural associations of these animals, in English foxy is a word apply to sexually attractive women, vixen, which had the earlier sense of an “ill-tempered quarrelsome woman”, seems now to be gaining the sense of a “sexually aggressive woman”, and in Latin the feminine form lupa refers to a “prostitute”. But lest we cast any aspersions on our reindeer Vixen, let’s move on to the next reindeer in the line.
And that is Comet. As an object flying flying through the heavens, the word comet seems an appropriate name for one of Santa’s team. Comet comes ultimately from Greek, in the expression aster kometes, meaning literally “hairy star” on account of the long tail of the star which was thought to look like hair. The aster part is straightforwardly enough from the Proto-Indo-European root which means and indeed gives us “star”. Kometes comes from Greek kome meaning “hair of the head”, and that’s the end of the line, as we don’t know where that word comes from. In addition to comets looking hairier than other stars, they were also notable to ancient observers for being temporary moving stars. Since they came and went like that, they were often taken as portents of important events. And to bring this all back to Christmas again, it has been speculated that the Star of Bethlehem which marked the birth of Jesus was in fact a comet, though other astronomical objects, such as an unusual conjunction of planets or even a supernova, have also been suggested. The Magi or Wise Men as they are sometimes known, were in this case likely astrologers following the “star”.
But moving on from stars in the heavens to gods, next up is the reindeer Cupid. Cupid is of course the Roman god of desire and erotic love, which the Romans associated with the Greek god Eros. Latin cupido “desire, love” comes from the verb cupere “to desire” which goes back to a Proto-Indo-European root *kwep- meaning “to smoke, cook, move violently be agitated emotionally”, so I suppose you could say that Cupid is really smokin’! It’s notable that the English derivative cupidity generally refers to desire for money, not sexual desire, though the related concupiscence does indicate sexual desire. Also possibly from this root through Latin vapor “steam” are the words vapour and evaporate, and through vapidus English vapid, literally “that has emitted steam or lost its vapour, flat, poor”. Greek Eros, by the way, may come from the root *ere- meaning “to separate, adjoin”, which also gives us rare through Latin rarus “having intervals between” hence “full of empty spaces” and thus “rare”. If this is the root of Eros, it would then come from the Greek verb erasthai “to love” from the idea of “being separated from”. Well absence does make the heart grow fonder, or perhaps that should be fondler, since we’re talking about erotic love here, Eros also leading to English erotic and erogenous. Today of course we associate the god Cupid with that little cherub who flies about shooting love arrows at people around St Valentine’s Day. But lest we again stray into yet another holiday, I’ll bring it back to wolves and Roman traditions. Because some have tried, not very convincingly, to trace a line between Valentine’s Day and the Roman festival called Lupercalia, which just happens to fall on the 13th to 15th of February. Lupercalia, which draws its name from Latin lupus “wolf” is a kind of pastoral festival associated with fertility (hence the supposed connection with Valentine’s Day), in which, according to the historian Plutarch, young men ran through the streets naked hitting women who wished to become pregnant or have an easier pregnancy with shaggy thongs. Always with the men hitting on the women, it seems! Certainly makes you wonder what Cupid and Vixen were getting up to.
Our next reindeer in the pantheon is Donner. Or is it? In the original Clement Clarke Moore poem it’s Dunder, though you needn’t feel like a dunderhead, a related word, or a dummkopf for that matter, for not knowing that, as Donner is today the most common form of the reindeer’s name. You see Dunder is the 19th century Dutch spelling for the word, which means “thunder”, and which goes back to the Proto-Indo-European root *(s)tene- meaning “thunder”, and I’m sure you’ll be stunned and astonished (also related words) to hear that English thunder also comes from this root. The German form of the word is Donner, which is how we know the reindeer name today. Also related is Thor (Old English Þunor) the Norse Lord of Thunder — oops, that should be God of Thunder, sorry Thor! And since there appear to be wolves after me in this video, I may as well mention, in the Norse myths Thor’s father Odin meets his doom in the jaws of the monstrous wolf Fenrir, whose name means “fen-dweller”. So I guess wolves are after Odin too!
And what goes along with thunder? Well lightning of course! And that’s the sense behind the next reindeer name, Blitzen. Only again the original poem had the Dutch form Blixem, before it was modified into its German form that we know today. The ultimate Proto-Indo-European root behind the word is *bhel- which means “shine, flash, burn”, and gives us such words as bleach, blond, and flame, as well as Beltane, the Celtic May Day celebration (yet another non-Christmas holiday). Blitzen also has some more closely related cognates in English such as Blitzkrieg meaning “lightning-war”, the WWII German attack strategy which employed surprise and speed to overwhelm the opposing forces. This was then shortened to simply blitz, especially in reference to the Blitz, the German bombing raids against Britain in WWII. But this is also not a suitable topic for Christmas, so we’d best move on.
Move on? But weren’t there only eight reindeer? Well as I’m sure you know, a later addition to the team is Rudolph the Red-Nosed-Reindeer, the most famous reindeer of all! That story was written by Robert May, drawing on memories of his own painfully shy childhood, as a free Christmas promotion in 1939 for the Montgomery Ward department store, where he worked in the advertising department. Almost two and a half million copies were given out that Christmas season, and the story became a big hit virtually overnight. And in a remarkable show of corporate loyalty the store turned over the rights to the poem to May, and it subsequently became a commercially published book. May then handed the poem over to his brother-in-law Johnny Marks to turn into a song, which became a hit for Gene Autry, the singing cowboy, after it was turned down by the likes of Bing Crosby and Dinah Shore, and was eventually made into a Christmas TV special in 1964. As for songwriter Marks, although he was Jewish (as was May), he made something of a career out of writing Christmas songs, composing such hits as Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree, A Holly Jolly Christmas, and Run Rudolph Run, the last for Rock n’ Roll legend Chuck Berry.
As for the name itself, well it looks like the wolves have finally caught up with us and are dressed in reindeer’s clothing, because Rudolph means “glory-wolf”. The second element we’ve already seen, the Germanic root that produces wolf. The first element is from hruod, a Germanic root meaning “glory, fame”, a common name element also found in the name Roger. That name appears in Old English as Hroðgar, literally “fame-spear”, the name of the king in the Old English heroic poem Beowulf, king of the Danes and lord of the hall Heorot that we saw at the beginning of this video. Rudolf too has an Old English form, Hroðulf, who is mentioned briefly in Beowulf as the nephew of Hroðgar. These legendary figures also appear in an Old Norse saga as Hróar and Hrólfr, with the latter playing the larger role, gathering about him court of twelve accomplished warriors, one of whom, Böðvar Bjarki, whose name means “warlike little bear”, is often connected with Beowulf himself on account of his bearish name. Böðvar Bjarki’s father was magically turned into a bear, and he seems to have inherited his father’s bear connection, as he is able to project his spirit as a giant bear in order to fight for Hrolf with bearlike powers.
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