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This blog is about the fascinating, fun, and challenging things about the English language. I hope to entertain you and to help you with problems or just questions you might have with spelling and usage. I go beyond just stating what is right and what is wrong, and provide some history or some tips to help you remember. Is something puzzling you? Feel free to email me at wordlady.barber@gmail.com.
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Monday, December 19, 2011

Rein, reign, go away

             Reindeer with reins

With visions of Donner and Blitzen and Co. harnessed up to Santa's sleigh in our heads, one might think that reindeer are so called because they wear reins. But the reins used for horses are from the Latin word retinere (hold back), whereas “reindeer” comes from the language of the Vikings (not surprisingly, since reindeer are found in the northern parts of the world). In Old Norse, rein was the word for what we would call a caribou. “Deer” back then was the general word for animals, only later being restricted to the antler-bearing ones. So, etymologically speaking, “reindeer” means “caribou animal”. "Caribou", by the way, has a very cute etymology, coming from a Mi'kmaq (native people of eastern Canada) word meaning "snow shoveller", from their habit of scraping away snow with their hooves to get at the food underneath.

Neither "rein" nor "reindeer" has anything to do with the other "reign". Or "rain", for that matter, but I doubt anyone makes that mistake. (Coincidentally, though, "rain" did also start out life with a "g"!)

"Reign" comes from the Latin regnum (government by a king) via Old French. Various pronunciations of the word seem to have existed throughout the Middle Ages -- rayn, ray-nye, rayng-nye -- but eventually "rayn" won out. Being English, though, we wouldn't waste the opportunity to bedevil people learning to spell when we could keep a good silent letter to show off that we know the Latin origins of a word. So we're stuck with the g. I guess we should just be grateful that no one felt compelled to reflect the Latin origins of "rein" by spelling it "reitn"!


  1. Hello,

    Next Monday is next year, next Friday might be too late: Happy New Year!

    And thank you for all your efforts!

    It is pleasant to see among the most challenging English words simple Romanian words (such as "retinere" and "regn(um)"), even though Romanian has - as far as I know - climbed its way back on the shoulders of French.

    I hope you could keep going here for a very long time!

    Thanks again.

  2. Thank you, E.T., and best wishes of the season to you too!


About Me

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Canada's Word Lady, Katherine Barber is an expert on the English language and a frequent guest on radio and television. She was Editor-in-Chief of the Canadian Oxford Dictionary. Her witty and informative talks on the stories behind our words are very popular. Contact her at wordlady.barber@gmail.com to book her for speaking engagements; she can tailor her talks to almost any subject. She is also available as an expert witness for lawsuits.