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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 32

IV.—Deor, Deer

IV.—Deor, Deer.

Deór is the Saxon word for a wild beast; in German it is thier. Thus, what we call a zoological garden, from the Greek, the Germans call a thier-garten, which every German understands at once. In England we have lost the word deer in its primary signification, and only retain it in its secondary meaning—an animal of the stag kind, the huntsman's animal par excellence.* In Old English, and down even to Shakspeare's time, the word deer, though perhaps no longer commonly used in the old sense, was at least so understood. Edgar, in King Lear, when simulating madness, says :—

"But mice and rats, and such small deer,

Have been Tom's food for seven long year."

This, however, is only a quotation from an older metrical romance called Sir Bevis of Southampton—popular before Shake-speare's time—popular in my young days, and read, in a prose version, by my children born in this colony. It has, in fact, kept its hold on the public mind for upwards of four centuries. The original couplet is:—

"Rattes and Myce and such small dere

Were his mete for seven year."

In this passage dere clearly retains the old generic meaning, though it may have been slipping out of use in Shakespeare's time; and Schlegel, in his admirable translation of Shakespeare, in which he was assisted by Ludwig Tieck, thus renders it:—"Doch Maüs and Ratten, and solch Gethier," where the word Gethier stands for wild animals generally. The change of meaning of the word from wild beast generally to the particular page 23 animal of the hunter, may be readily understood from what is passing under our own eyes. Beast is properly only used in a general sense. It is, in fact, the French for animal, bete, in which the original s is dropped out, as marked by the circumflex accent. But when the butcher speaks of a beast, he means an ox. He never applies the word to a sheep or a pig, or even to a calf. An ox to the butcher is what a deer is to the hunter. Now, if butchers' language were to prevail (which, although not probable, is not quite impossible), beast, like deór, might become obsolete as a generic word, and then, by usurping the place of, it might exclude from use, the word ox, with its pure Saxon plural ox-en. Again, when the English sportsman speaks of "birds," he means partridges, and not other sporting birds—not even pheasants.

It may be amusing to read a French translation of the couplet quoted by Shakespeare in King Lear. In La Roche's prose translation we read :—Des souris et des rats et semblable frétin, de Tom depuis sept ans ont étés le festin. Here the word frétin is the exact equivalent of our "small fry," applied both in French and English primarily to fish; but, secondarily, in both languages, used as an expression of contempt, or, at least, applied to something insignificant. I may mention that thier is one of the words in which the Gothic coincides with the Greek, but it must not be concluded that the Gothic is derived from the Greek. They are only remotely related, springing from a common ancestor of Asiatic birth.

* This limitation of a word from a generic to a special sense is noticed by Marsh (Lec., 1st Series, p. 248), and, among others, in the case of meat. "The Anglo-Saxon and oldest English meaning of meat is food, and I believe it is always used in that sense in our English translation of the Bible. In England, and especially in the United States, animal food is now the most prominent article of diet, and meat has come to signify almost exclusively the flesh of land animals." In the couplet from Sir Bevis, a few lines further on mate is used for food, and Shakespeare in his version has translated it into food. Marsh also gives instances of the converse process of change.