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deer (dîr)
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n. pl. deer
Any of various hoofed ruminant mammals of the family Cervidae, characteristically having deciduous antlers borne chiefly by the males. The deer family includes the white-tailed deer, elk, moose, and caribou.

[Middle English der, beast, from Old English dēor.]

Word History: In Middle English texts one finds a fish, an ant, or a fox called a der, the Middle English ancestor of our word deer. In its Old English form dēor, the word referred to any animal, including members of the deer family, and continued to do so in Middle English, although it also acquired the specific sense "a deer." By the end of the Middle English period, around 1500, the general sense had all but disappeared. In Shakespeare's works, for example, the word deer usually refers to the antlered animals that we call deer today. However, a memory of the earlier, broader meaning is preserved in the words of the character Edgar in King Lear, which Shakespeare wrote sometime between 1603 and 1606. After being unjustly declared an outlaw by his father, Edgar disguises himself as a lunatic and lives in misery in the countryside under the name "Poor Tom." When he later meets his father, who has been blinded and cannot recognize his son, "Tom" explains that he survives by eating toads and tadpoles and whatever else he can catch: "But mice and rats, and such small deer / Have been Tom's food for seven long year." Here, such small deer would seem to mean "other such small animals." Another trace of the earlier meaning of deer is probably found in wilderness. This word is thought to descend from an unattested Old English word *wilddēornes, made up of Old English wilddēor or wildedēor, "wild animal" and the noun suffix -nes, the equivalent of the Modern English suffix -ness. Wilderness is thus "wild-animal-ness," so to speak. The German word Tier, the cognate of Old English dēor and Modern English deer, still has the general sense of "animal."

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
 

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