There are three fairly obscure words reeve in English; I was familiar with the first two, a noun for various officials (ranging from ‘a local administrative agent of an Anglo-Saxon king’ to ‘the council president in some Canadian municipalities’) and a verb meaning ‘to pass (as a rope) through a hole or opening,’ but I just now discovered the third and most obscure, a noun meaning ‘the female of the ruff (sandpiper).’ All these definitions are from Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate, which is where I found it, and what first struck me was the bracketed etymology “origin unknown.” On the face of it, it certainly looks related to ruff (itself pretty obscure, and I’m frankly not sure whether I knew the word or not), so I checked the OED, which says “Of obscure origin: the form REE n.2 is found earlier, but is less frequent.” Huh. I tried the American Heritage and found “reeve The female ruff. Probably alteration of ruff1.” Well, if the etymologists at AHD think that, how come the ones at Oxford and M-W don’t?
And perhaps even more pressing a question: why is this incredibly obscure and pretty much useless word for the female of Philomachus pugnax in all these general-purpose dictionaries in the first place?


  1. Thanks for that – it brought back great memories of laughing hysterically at the mention of “reeve” in “What Do You Mean It WAS Brilling?” by James Thurber. Forgive me, I hate people who leave long comments, but I just have to quote from it.
    “I was sitting at my typewriter one afternoon several weeks ago, staring at a piece of blank white paper, when Della walked in.
    “They are here with the reeves,” she said. It did not surprise me that they were. With a colored woman like Della in the house it would not surprise me if they showed up with the toves. In Della’s afternoon it is always brillig; she could outgrabe a mome rath on any wabe in the world. Only Lewis Carroll would have understood Della completely. I try hard enough.
    “Let them wait a minute,” I said. I got out the big Century Dictionary and put it on my lap and looked up “reeve.” It is an interesting word, like all of Della’s words; I found out that there are four kinds of reeves. “Are they here with strings of onions?” I asked. Della said they were not. “Are they here with enclosures or pens for cattle, poultry, or pigs; sheepfolds?” Della said no sir. “Are they here with administrative officers?” From a little nearer the door Della said no again. “Then they’ve got to be here,” I said, “with some females of the common European sandpiper.”
    These scenes of ours take as much out of Della as they do out of me, but she is not a woman to be put down by a crazy man with a dictionary. “They are here with the reeves for the windas,” said Della with brave stubbornness. Then, of course, I understood what they were there with: they were there with the Christmas wreaths for the windows. “Oh those reeves!” I said. We were both greatly relieved; we both laughed. Della and I never quite reach the breaking point; we just come close to it.”

  2. I, on the other hand, people who leave long comments, and I love Thurber, so thank you!

  3. You did not note a verb for your feelings in regard to those who leave long comments…I fear “tolerate” could be easily inserted. Since you love Thurber, if you’re ever in Columbus (God help you), let me know and I’ll show you around all his old haunts…we can even retrace the route of “The Day the Dam Broke.” (we don’t HAVE to run, though)

  4. Oops: I meant to say I love people who leave long comments! (How did that happen?) Anyway, I look forward to the Thurber tour if I’m ever in Columbus!

  5. Googling suggests both “ruff” and “reeve” are in common usage among birders — they show up on Audubon Society pages, Peterson’s Field Guides and the like. You can even find ruff and reeve stamps!

  6. Yeah, I noticed that too, but I don’t understand it. We don’t use separate words for male and female robins, or blackbirds, or cardinals; why “ruff and reeve”? I guess because it sounds good…

  7. Ian Myles Slater says:

    Sexual dimorphism is common in birds, but the ruffs seem to carry it to an extreme, with multiple variations (polymorphism) in males. See (much more extreme than I had imagined when I started searching).
    I wonder if this confusing situation generated an otherwise fairly unusual variation in name-formation in modern English, perhaps with the more extreme males (implicitly) contrasted with the females.
    Such variation appears to be common in the terms for domestic and some game species, often as an inheritance, sometimes with specialization of competing forms. (Fox/Vixen is a clear example (O.E. masculine fox, but feminine fyxe).
    In many cases involving birds, though, a compound is used, e.g., peacock, pea-hen.
    I am sure someone has done a proper study; I may be completely wrong, and hunters and/or rural people may have a much richer vocabulary than I am aware of for distinguishing male and female of a great many species.
    “Reeve” certainly looks a variation on “Ruff,” but the OED citation of an older version as “Ree” may mean the editors are letting documentation trump a nice theory.
    By the way, “reeve” for “official” survives, in disguise, in a much more common word. “Sheriff,” “the principal law-enforcement officer in a county,” was once the scir-gerefa, the Officer-of-the-Shire. (Which is why Tolkien has the Shire patrolled by *shiriffs*, Hobbits being rather conservative in their language as well as set in their ways.)
    The office was one Anglo-Saxon institution the Norman kings retained, as giving them direct control by appointment, instead of problematic inheritance by over-mighty subjects.
    And, of course, the basic word had its own history in Middle English; reader’s of Chaucer will recall “The Reeve’s Tale,” if not the Reeve (estate manager) himself, “a sclendre colerik man” from Norfolk.

  8. dungbeetle says:

    Ruff be for the fellow that be bragging about being a lucky strutting male, he be looking like a mock up of Sir Francis Drake but who be the boss, it be the one that sits on the eggs and puts a rope around of the collar of the strutting one otherwise known as Reeve.

  9. En. Ruff, Da. Brushane, Du. Kemphaan, Fi. Suokukko, Fr. Chevalier combattant, Ge. Kampflaüfer, It. Combattente, No. Brushane, Sp. Combatiente, Sw. Brushane, Eusk. Borrokalari

  10. I think the reason we don’t use separate terms for male and female robins or blackbirds is that there is not much visual difference between the genders of those species. (We don’t have a term for a female cardinal because the last pope forbade discussing the subject.) In fact, in the European robin the sexes are so alike that — according to David Lack’s book The Life of the Robin — people used to believe all robins were male, and that the wrens were their mates. This belief is expressed in the old English folk rhyme, “The robin and the wren are God Almighty’s cock and hen.”
    By contrast, in the ruff, according to Collins Birds: A Complete Guide to All European Species, “the sexes are more different in appearance than many species are from each other.” So I don’t find it surprising that observers came up with two different words for them. I can think of some other examples of separate words for male and female birds: duck/drake, goose/gander, falcon/tercel. But these all seem to be dying out (in favour of the female word, interestingly).
    By the way, scientists recently discovered that the difference between genders in the ruff is not as clear-cut as it might seem. Apparently there is a small class of male ruffs that have female plumage and spend their entire lives mimicking female behaviour, even to the extent of allowing other males to mate with them. (This discovery is briefly mentioned on the page Ian linked to; there was a longer account of it in the May issue of BBC Wildlife magazine). So it may turn out to be useful to have a word that distinguishes true females from their mimics!

  11. dungbeetle says:

    In Nature, one can witness every way, which way to exhibit and attract a partner to keep the species a going, it will be used. Every possible genetic variation will be tried out. Those that fail to keep the species from surviving will be discarded, naturally.
    ‘umans still testing the theory on their own species, just walk down any shopping Mall.

  12. That’s extremely interesting, Laura, and probably explains it — thanks!

  13. bathrobe says:

    Ahem! Since someone has given the European names for the ruff/reeve, please check the Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese names:
    (Beating my own drum again)

  14. John Emerson says:

    Another triumph for LH (the site). That’s a pretty decisive answer.

  15. J. Ree Jones says:

    Well I was very happy to find that a Ree is a bird. My middle name is Ree as was my mother’s. Having ancesters that came over from England on 1626 and the only place the Ruffs and Rees are year round inhabitants is a small part part of eastern England seems to make sense. Anyway better than being named “Lady Bird” I guess.

  16. J. Ree Jones says:

    Oh yes, there is the sir name “Rees” and Trever “Rees” Jones. Diana’s bodyguard when she died. The word may lost in the mysts of time but it still surfaces from time to time.

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