Dear - deer

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Dear and deer form one of the sets of homophones listed by the then Poet Laureate Robert Bridges.
(For more, see Bridges homophones). AWE has a category listing our articles on each of these.

  • Dear is the Old English rendering of a Common adjective with the central idea of 'valuable' or 'worthy'. This divides into two main branches of meaning:
    • applied to people its central meaning is 'loved', 'held in high esteem or affection'. (This supplanted the obsolete meaning 'glorious, noble, honourable, worthy' (OED, 2021) by the end of the seventeenth century.) It is used as the most common salutation for letters in English, although 'Dear Sir or Madam' does not normally imply affection. My dear, however, in conversation or in writing does clearly imply serious affection, and my dearest even more so. The word is often used with this sense substantively.
    • Applied to things, especially in commerce or trade, it means 'expensive', 'not cheap'. Although this is usually applied in a literal sense to buying and selling items in a way perceived as costly, dear is also used metaphorically.
      • A common colloquialism uses dear as a quasi-euphemism for the name of God, as in dear knows! (sometimes 'The dear knows') and Dear me. This becomes part of a group of general exclamations "expressing surprise, astonishment, anxiety, distress, regret, sympathy, or other emotion" (OED, 2021), such as "Dear!, Oh dear!, Dear, dear!, Dear me!". Other constructions are seen such as 'dear bless', 'dear help', 'dear love', 'dear save us'. The simple 'dear me!' is sometimes 'dearie me!'.
  • Deer is the noun - the apparently singular form is used for both singular and plural - naming various species of grazing animals belonging to the Cervidæ family of mammals. In all species males grow antlers: only in the reindeer (Rangifer tarandus), called caribou in North America, do females grow antlers. Several species are wild in Britain: the red deer (cervus elaphus), the largest; the roe deer (capreolus capreolus, in Old English simply roe), smaller and more common; the fallow (Dama dama), probably reintroduced in Norman times; the sika (cervus nippon), muntjac (muntiacus reevesi), and Chinese water deer (hydropotes inermis) are later introductions from east Asia. The several species of musk deer, which is not found in Britain, belong to a different family, Moschidæ.
    • Female deer are most usually called does. Male deer are known as bucks or stags, particularly red deer; although larger species outside Britain, notably the elk (Alces alces; Moose in North America, where 'elk' means Cervus canadensis, or wapiti), are given the bovine names of 'bull' (male), 'cow' (female) and 'calf' (juvenile). The usual British name for a juvenile deer is fawn. Venison is a word now used exclusively for the meat of a deer, although as its etymology (from Latin vēnātiōn-em, 'hunting') suggests, it could formerly be used for the meat of any animal taken in a hunt. 'Venison' is pronounced as it looks - 'VENN-iss-en', IPA: /ˈvɛn ɪs ˌən/; although some speakers of marked RP realize it as a disyllable: 'VENN-sun', /ˈvɛn sən/.
Etymological note: 'deer' is a Common Germanic word, originally meaning 'animal'. 'beast'. its restriction to the meaning 'cervid beast' seems to occur only in English, and here is comparatively recent. (Shakespeare has his supposedly mad Edgar. in King Lear (III iv), say
Mice and rats and such small deer
Have been Tom’s food for seven long year.)
The equivalent of deer in modern German is Tier, and the wider meaning may be shown in that Tiergarten in that language is translated as 'Zoo', 'zoological garden'.