The Finns Have a Unit of Measurement Based on a Reindeer's Urinary Habits

A Blog About Language
Dec. 27 2013 12:24 PM

The Finns Have a Unit of Measurement Based on a Reindeer's Urinary Habits

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Stopping by woods (to pee) on a snowy evening.

Photo by OLIVIER MORIN/AFP/Getty Images

For the past week, an informative Associated Press story by David Mac Dougall, titled "Things you didn't know about reindeer," has been circulating around the web. Among the interesting aspects of reindeer nature and behavior he describes are their ability to move quickly and wander widely, and the fact that they have super-insulating wool to keep warm in the frigid climes they inhabit, hooves that can function like snowshoes, eyes that change color (from yellow-green in summer to deep blue in the darker months of winter, which "helps scatter more incoming light and results in better vision"), and meat that is both tasty and healthy. Also, it is said that they ingest hallucinogenic mushrooms that apparently make them tipsy.

To me, though, the most fascinating revelations are in the paragraph headed, "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.
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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.

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 regarding reindeer reveals much about human-animal coexistence.

A version of this post originally appeared on Language Log.

Victor Mair is a professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania.

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