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According to Wikipedia, a roe deer is

a small, nimble Eurasian deer with no visible tail, a white rump patch, and a reddish summer coat that turns grey in winter, the male having short three-pointed antlers (source)

Why are such deers called "roe" deers? I found that "roe" only means the eggs of fish, the sperm of certain fish or the ovaries of certain crustaceans.

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    By the way, as this is E.L.L. perhaps I should point out that the plural or 'deer' is 'deer', not 'deers'. There are a several animals in English which have no plural forms, including fish, trout, shrimp, moose, sheep, swine, buffalo and doe (a female deer). – Old Brixtonian Aug 24 at 13:45
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    @OldBrixtonian It's a good point - but some of those do have optional plural forms (including "doe" and "buffalo"). Others, like "deer" and "sheep", always remain unchanged in the plural. – rjpond Aug 24 at 14:03
  • Song: Doe, a deer, a female deer....Google it1 – Lambie Aug 25 at 18:59
  • @ripond You're quite right. It was late, I was tired... – Old Brixtonian Aug 27 at 0:48
  • Thank you all so very much for your detailed explanations! – Maurice Sep 7 at 15:35
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There are two words written "roe" - they are homonyms (words of different origin that look and sound the same).

So, "roe" meaning "fish eggs" is one word, and "roe" meaning roe deer is another, unrelated word. Both are of Germanic origin, but they have different roots.

For the name of the deer, the terms "roe" and "roe deer" have coexisted since the Old English period. ("Old English" with a capital "O" is the name for the English language as spoken pre-1066, also known as "Anglo-Saxon".)

"Roe" and the "roe" of "roe deer" have the same Germanic root, but it is unclear whether "roe deer" was coined in Old English (by combining "roe" with "deer") or borrowed from Norse (the ancestor language of Danish, Norwegian, Swedish, Faroese and Icelandic; Norse was spoken by Danish settlers in some parts of early medieval England).

The reason for the continued existence of the term "roe deer" alongside the simpler term "roe" is probably that it's much clearer, given that "roe" is a monosyllable with other meanings (and also sounds identical to the word "row" in some of its meanings), and given that most people don't discuss deer that often.

(Note: In both Old English and Old Norse, "deer" just meant an animal, not necessarily a deer. "Roe" was the name of the specific animal. In origin, though, "roe" was probably a colour reference, possibly meaning "swarthy", "dusky" or "brownish".)

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  • Since the other two native British species of deer are the red deer and the fallow deer, it would seem natural that the "roe" would be renamed the "roe deer" by analogy. (Note for pedants: the fallow deer was reintroduced into Britain at some unknown date after becoming extinct in the last Ice Age, but it has been native for at least 1000 and possibly 2000 years). – alephzero Aug 24 at 21:03
  • @alphazero By analogy of what exactly? How is "roe" related to those other words? – Grault Aug 24 at 23:54
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    @Grault, there is an important difference between alphazero and alephzero. – Juergen Aug 25 at 6:24
  • Good point. @alephzero See above. – Grault Aug 25 at 6:26
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The reason for the continued existence of the term "roe deer" alongside the simpler term "roe" is probably that it's much clearer, given that "roe" is a monosyllable with other meanings (and also sounds identical to the word "row" in some of its meanings), and given that most people don't discuss deer that often.

Indeed, if you go back to the time when people did frequently discuss deer, you find that they even had different monosyllabic words for different kinds of deer: notably hart and hind for (male and female) red deer, versus buck and doe for (male and female) fallow and roe deer — not to mention fawn, stag, staggart, brocket (red), pricket and sorel (fallow), and so on. There's a neat little table on this page.

Relatedly, the word deer started out meaning simply "any kind of animal"; Online Etymological Dictionary says: "The sense specialization to a specific animal began in Old English (the usual Old English word for what we now call a deer was heorot; see hart), was common by 15c., and is now complete." (I have to keep reminding myself that deer is not a cognate of Latin -therium, though; different PIE root.)

On roe itself, Online Etymological Dictionary says: "Old English ra, from raha, from Proto-Germanic *raikhaz, of uncertain origin; perhaps from PIE root *rei- "streaked, spotted, striped in various colors."

The other species being "red deer" and "fallow deer," it does seem like "roe deer" refers to coloration. ("Red" and "fallow" both refer explicitly to coloration.)

Also relevant: the archaic use of the male form to refer to any group. So when Deut. 14:5 talks about "the hart, and the roe-buck, and the fallow deer," or when 1 Kings 4:23 says Solomon had "an hundred sheep, beside harts, and roe-bucks, and fallow-deer," it doesn't mean that he had only male red deer and roe deer; "obviously" what applies to harts applies equally to hinds. But it does mean that frequently we'd say "roe-buck" or "roe-bucks" in places where it might be ambiguous, rather than "roe deer," leaving "roe" only for places where the context is unambiguous and/or we're talking specifically about female roes (e.g. the Song of Solomon).

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