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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) uninhabited, uncultivated, and often remote land

The origin of the word wilderness popped up on HH the other day, but there’s more to this tale than meets the eye.

As we explained over on Twitter, the ‘wilder–’ in wilderness comes from wild deor, Old English for ‘wild deer’. On the surface, those two words don’t seem to have changed all that much in the eight centuries or so since this first appeared in our language. But that root word deor is a troublesome one.

Although it’s clearly the origin of our word deer, back in the Old English period things weren’t quite so specific. Just as meat originally meant ‘food’, girl originally meant ‘child’, and wife originally meant ‘woman’, a deer was originally any large land animal, as opposed to a bird or a fish. So although this definition obviously included deer, it also included all kinds of other creatures too.

In the early Middle English period, however, Old English deor underwent an etymological process known variously as specialization, concretization, restriction, or semantic narrowing. No matter what you call it, the process itself is the same: the meaning of a word changes over time to become a more specific version of itself. Deer ultimately came to refer more specifically to—well, deer.

When a word changes like this is, it sometimes develops from a holonym into a meronym. In semantics, holonyms are large-scale words of which meronyms are smaller, more localized parts—so if your body is the holonym, then everything from your head to your feet via your eyes, mouth, chest, stomach, arms, legs and bones are its meronyms. A word like sand, for instance, underwent precisely this change, as it initially meant ‘shoreline’ before narrowing its meaning to just one constituent part of a coastal landscape.

More frequently, however, semantic restriction changes a word from a hypernym to a hyponym. Hypernyms are essentially category words, and hyponyms are the word that fall under each heading. Colour, for instance, is a hypernym that includes hyponyms like red, yellow, green, blue, orange, purple, brown, black and white. So deer was originally a hypernym, referring to all large animals, but morphed into a hyponym, referring to a specific type of animal. The same thing happened to meat, girl, and wife, as well as words like amphibian (which was originally any creature that could live both in and out of water, including reptiles and beavers), hound (originally any dog, not just a hunting dog), and both swelter and starve (which originally meant merely ‘to weaken’ or ‘perish’, regardless of how that happened).

What prompts changes like this? Typically, a combination of things. Words borrowed from other languages undoubtedly help move things around: as English later adopted beast from French, and animal from Latin, the burden on deer would have eased, and freed it up to gravitate naturally towards a more specific version of itself. There’s also sometimes cultural aspects to changes like this too. As laws become codified, for example, it’s often necessary for words to grow more specific so that the rules can be outlined less ambiguously. In the case of deer, perhaps its meaning was prompted to change, say, to specify precisely which animals were and were not fair game for hunting.

There’s always an element of sheer dumb luck to all this too, of course. If the word deor just so happened to be used more frequently of deer than any other animal, it’s natural that that would be the meaning to eventually won out.

So is wilderness the land of the ‘wild deer’ or just the land of ‘wild animals’? It’s difficult to say. The restriction in meaning from ‘any animal’ down to ‘deer’ appears to have already started by the time the word wilderness first appeared in our language in the 1200s. The old and new meanings of deer coexisted for a time, however, as deer was still being used to mean ‘animal’ long into the fifteenth century. Did wilderness take on the older or the newer meaning? It’s all but impossible to say, but we’d hedge our bets on the latter.

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