It's Christmas Eve. Tonight Santa Claus will be flying through the sky in his sleigh pulled by nine reindeer to distribute gifts to all the good little boys and girls around the world. The names of the reindeer, as we all know, are Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donder (also spelled Dunder and Donner), Blitzen (also spelled Blixem and Blixen), and, of course, Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.
In An American Anthology, 1787–1900, Edmund Clarence Stedman reprints the 1844 Clement Clarke Moore version of the poem, including the German spelling of "Donder and Blitzen," rather than the original 1823 version using the Dutch spelling, "Dunder and Blixem." Both phrases translate as "Thunder and Lightning" in English, though German for thunder is now spelled Donner, and the Dutch words would nowadays be spelled Donder and Bliksem.
Rudolph wasn't added to the team until 1939, and that was in a version of the story written by Robert L. May for the Montgomery Ward chain of department stores.
But that's not what I really wanted to talk about in this post. Rather, I want to introduce Language Log readers to a most curious Finnish word concerning reindeer behavior.
For the past few days, an informative Associated Press story by David Mac Dougall entitled "Things you didn't know about reindeer" has been circulating on many websites. I picked it up here.
Among the interesting aspects of reindeer nature and behavior described by the author are the facts that they move quickly and wander widely, they have super-insulating wool to keep them warm in the frigid climes they inhabit, they have hooves that can function like snowshoes, have eyes that change color (from yellow-green in summer to deep blue in winter; "The blue color during the darkest months of the year helps scatter more incoming light and results in better vision…"), their meat is both tasty and healthy, and they are said to ingest hallucinogenic mushrooms that apparently make them tipsy.
To me, at least, by far the most fascinating revelations in the article are in the paragraph headed thus: "But They Must Pause to Pee":
Reindeer can't walk too far without answering the call of nature. In fact, they are unable to walk and pee at the same time, so they have to take a bathroom break roughly every 6 miles. In Finnish, this distance is known as "poronkusema" or "reindeer's piss" and was an old-fashioned description of distances in the countryside.
Poronkusema — what a wonderful word! Let the syllables roll off your tongue as you contemplate the regularity of reindeer and the observational powers of their herders.
There's an entry on "poronkusema" in Wiktionary and it is also listed in the Wikipedia article on "Finnish obsolete units of measurement", where it is noted: "Today used to describe something that is at a very obscure distance away."
Before closing, I should mention that I have been fortunate to spend some time in the far north of Sweden and to find myself in the midst of huge herds that migrate over the land, led by a single reindeer. I have no clear idea how the herders keep track of them or identify which ones belong to whom (some sort of branding, I suppose), but it is truly an impressive sight to see the vast numbers of animals that live in a symbiotic relationship with the Sámi (exonym Lapp). Careful analysis of the folklore and legend concerning reindeer reveals much about human-animal coexistence.
Finally, I received this tidbit about reindeer characteristics from a scientifically minded friend:
According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, while both male and female deer grow antlers in the summer each year, male reindeer drop their antlers at the beginning of winter, usually late November to mid-December.
Female reindeer retain their antlers until after they give birth in the spring. Therefore, according to EVERY historical rendition depicting Santa's reindeer, EVERY single one of them, from Rudolph to Blitzen, had to be a girl.
We should have known…. ONLY women would be able to drag a fat man in a red velvet suit all around the world in one night and not get lost!
[Thanks to Carol Conti-Entin and Heidi Krohne]