Water Deer - Etymology

The beginning of wisdom

Early authors, such as Chancellor Lü Buwei in his Lüshi Chunqiu, compiled around 239 BC, and the 30 volume Chinese dictionary compiled under authority of the Emperor Kanghe, refer to these enigmatic little deer as either Zhang or Ke. In his original description of the species, Swinhoe commented that Kanghe described the Ke as:

Stag-like, with feet resembling those of a Dog, has a long tusk on each side of the mouth, and is fond of fighting.”

Frontispiece of the 1827 edition of the Kangxi Chinese Dictionary. - Credit: Malcolm I'Anson (Wikimedia Commons)

Swinhoe described how he visited a market and “found this so-called Hog-deer”, but it's unclear whether that was a name given by locals or one of his sporting contacts. There certainly appears to have been some regional variation in naming and he noted that the Chinese at Shanghai called the deer Ke, while at Chinkiang they are named Chang. While Chang may actually be a corruption of Zhang, Swinhoe pointed out that Chang is the classical term for muntjac. Indeed, I had assumed that the Chinese translation of 河麂 (Hé jǐ), the name most often used in the scientific literature, to “river muntjac” was an error on Google or Bing's behalf, but two native Chinese speakers translated it as the same. Broadly, it seems that “river muntjac” or “Shanghai river deer”, as used by several naturalists during the early nineteenth century, were the native names up until around 1985, at which point I notice a shift towards “water deer” in the literature.

Kenneth Whitehead in his 1993 encyclopaedia gives alternate names as: Cerf de Marais (French); Wassereh (German); Gasha and Kibanoru (Korean); Zhang (Chinese and Mandarin). Additionally, Shen Hua and colleagues at the Defang National Deer Reserve note, in their 2007 Chinese paper to the Journal of Animal Science and Veterinary Medicine, that locals refer to the species as 无尾獐 (Wú wěi zhāng) ‘the tailless deer', and I have noticed that other Chinese authors sometimes use 牙獐 (Yá zhāng), the ‘toothed deer'.

Arnold Cooke tells me that the Korean word for water deer has three symbols (see below), which is Anglicised as gorani (i.e., Go-Ra-Ni) and translates simply to “elk” in English. Going by the Korean news articles and scientific literature I have seen, these symbols are the most common name applied to this species, although the four symbol name is also sometimes used - this is Anglicised to woteo dieo and translated to “water deer” in English. The exact etymology is unknown but, according to an article on Pressian (a Korean news website), is believed to be derived from Yá zhāng. Korean naturalist and wildlife illustrator Junha Kim informs me that the North Korean name for water deer is Anglicised as Bokjak-noru, or simply noru, translating to “roe deer” in English. In Russia, where the water deer has only recently been reported, the species is known as болотная кабарга, meaning “swamp musk deer”.

The Korean symbols associated with the water deer. - Credit: Marc Baldwin

Finally, the presence of the large canines in the males has resulted in the colloquial name of “vampire deer”, while their thick winter coat, large black eyes and large ears gives them a teddy bear-like appearance. Indeed, in his 2007 book Deer Watch: A Field Guide, Richard Prior wrote of how, upon seeing a slide of a water deer at one of his lectures, a small boy called out “Mummy, it's a teddy bear!”.