1. A living creature.
2. A domestic animal, especially a cow, horse, or mule.
3. A person.
[Alteration of CREATURE.]
Word History: In many American regional dialects, the word bull, meaning "adult male bovine," was once highly taboo. When speaking in mixed company, people would substitute a variety of words and call the bull a booman, brute, gentleman cow, or surly. In the Northeast in particular, critter was a common word used to avoid saying bull, both by itself and in combinations like beef critter and cross critter. The most common meaning of critter is "a living creature," whether wild or domestic; it also can mean "a child" when used as a term of sympathetic endearment, or it can mean "an unfortunate person." But in old-fashioned speech, critter and beast denoted a large domestic animal. The more restricted senses "a cow," "a horse," or "a mule" are still characteristic of the speech in specific regions of the United States. Critter itself originates as a dialectal variant of creature, but owing to the pronunciation spelling critter, the term has taken on something of a life of its own as a separate word. The American regional word also has its own variants, including creeter and cretter. In some ways, the pronunciation of critter would have been very familiar to Shakespeare: 16th- and 17th-century English had not yet begun to pronounce the -ture suffix with its modern (ch) sound. This archaic pronunciation survives not only in American critter, but also in Irish English creature, pronounced (krātŭr) and used in the same senses as the American word.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2018 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.