Norwegian words in English: Red-nosed caribou?

Photo: Public domain Title page of The History of Lapland by Johan Scheffer, originally published in 1674.

Photo: Public domain
Title page of The History of Lapland by Johan Scheffer, originally published in 1674.

M. Michael Brady
Asker, Norway

The reindeer is a species of the far north, with many subspecies that have names taken from the languages of indigenous peoples. So to this day, there are conflicting words for the animal in dictionaries. That said, thanks to the works of two late 17th century explorers, one French and one Swedish, two names have prevailed: caribou and reindeer.

The Frenchman was Pierre-Esprit Radisson (1636-1710), a fur trader in North America. An entry in his diary in 1665 reports killing several Caribou, a name in Canadian French taken from one of the native Algonquian languages. How long the name Caribou existed before then is not known.

The Swede was Johan Scheffer (1621-1679), a professor at the University of Upp­sala who explored northern Sweden and returned to publish The History of Lapland (1674). The title page of the book is illustrated with a woodcut of two Sámi herders leading a reindeer, the word used to describe the animal called hreindýri in Old Norse. That name apparently had existed for a few centuries, at least since the year 893, when King Alfred the Great wrote down tales he had heard from Othere of Hålogaland, including mention of rein.

The two names coexisted for nearly two centuries. In North America, people spoke of caribou, in both English and in French, while in Europe, people spoke of reindeer in various spellings, as reinsdyr in modern Norwegian. Then in 1949, singing cowboy Gene Autry recorded “Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” based on a poem first published in 1823 and then popularized in 1939 in a children’s Christmas book, and this tipped usage in favor of reindeer. For the story of that story, see “Of goats and reindeer: Nordic connections in Christmas stories” in the December 18, 2015, issue of Norwegian American Weekly, link:

M. Michael Brady was educated as a scientist and with time turned to writing and translating.

This article originally appeared in the Oct. 21, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.

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