Elk Names


Biologically speaking, it is pure butchery to call this animal an elk.
The confusion over the American elk’s proper name began as early as the
first European settlers’ arrival in North America. They immediately
spotted this familiar large animal and identified it as a near cousin
of the European red deer.

So far, so good. But the error arose when some early explorers
and settlers began calling this large member of the deer family an
“elk.” But in most European languages, the term “elk” referred to the
European moose. And subsequent discovery of America’s own version of
the moose only compounded the problem.

For quite some time, naturalists called it everything from a
“hind” to a “moose” to an “elk.” However, the debate subsided after the
Lewis and Clark expedition returned from their epic journey across
western America. Their diaries referred to the vast herds of giant deer
they encountered on the Great Plains as elk – and the name stuck.

The confusion still exists today, especially among European
visitors to America. A British couple who recently vacationed at a
resort in the mountains of Montana came back to the lodge one evening
with an exciting tale of having encountered and “elk” wading out in the
middle of a pond behind the lodge. The owner corrected them by
explaining it was a resident half-tame moose they’d spotted. It took an
hour and several natural history books to get the European couple to
understand that even though it was all biologically wrong, it was
proper to call an American elk an “elk.”

Back in the early 1800s, some frustrated naturalists even
tried to differentiate between the European elk and the misnamed
American elk by adopting the Shawnee Indian name “Wapiti” for the
American elk, which translates to mean “white rump.” Unfortunately,
most of the country at that time was more interested in eradicating the
Indian than embracing the language, so this movement died.

Today, many elk lovers have chosen to call the elk by its
Indian name of Wapiti, but for the most part the term “elk” is the
accepted norm.


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