The latest post at Sauvage Noble has me extremely interested in “Mallory, J. P., and D. Q. Adams. 2006 [forthcoming]. The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and The Proto-Indo-European World. Oxford: Oxford University Press.” I hope I get a chance to peruse the actual book; in the meantime, Chapter 9 “Indo-European Fauna” is online (pdf; no Google cache available). There’s a fascinating introductory section on the history of the words elk and moose that I wanted to quote, but alas, the Select Text feature doesn’t work (probably for the same reason there’s no cache), so I’ll have to type in some and summarize the rest:

When the Angles and Saxons invaded Britain from their continental homes, they were familiar with both Alces alces (the ‘elk’ of European English and the ‘moose’ of North American English) and Cervus elaphus (the ‘red deer’ of European English and the ‘elk’ of North American English) and applied those designations to members of the same two species which were also present in Great Britain. By about AD 900 Alces alces was extinct in Great Britain [but the word was still used because the English were familiar with the animal in continental Europe]. However, for most speakers the referent was pretty vague, something like ‘large deer’ or the like. By 1600 or so the inherited designation for Cervus elaphus had been replaced by the innovative and descriptive red deer [and around the same time the species pretty much disappeared from southern Britain]. At that point for most speakers of southern British English there were two terms for large deer, ‘elk’, and ‘red deer’, without well-known referents.
When some of these southern British English speakers emigrated to New England at the beginning of the seventeenth century [they found both species there] and they needed names for both. ‘Red deer’ was not suitable for either since neither… was noticeably red. However, ‘elk’ was available and was assigned to the commonest large deer in the new environment, Cervus elaphus, while a borrowing from the local Algonquian language, ‘moose’, was pressed into service for Alces alces.

Of course, that’s relevant to Indo-European only as an example of how semantic shift can operate, but I find it extremely interesting in its own right. I always knew there was something funny going on with moose and elk, but I’d never taken the trouble to get it straight. Now I know.


  1. I had no idea that the American “elk” was actually a deer. Thank you.

  2. I had no idea that the American “elk” was actually a deer. Thank you.

  3. I noticed a few years back that the well-known Robert Burns lyric “My Heart’s In The Highlands” refers quite precisely to the two deer native (in modern times) to the British Isles:

    My heart’s in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
    My heart’s in the Highlands a-chasing the deer -
    A-chasing the wild deer, and following the roe;
    My heart’s in the Highlands, wherever I go.

    “Wild deer” is another name for the red deer, and the “roe” is Capreolus capreolus. All the other deer of Britain, including the familiar fallow deer of England, Dama dama, are escapees from Norman hunting parks.
    ObRelevant: Wikipedia has this to say about the name dama: The Latin word damma, used for roe deer, gazelles and antelopes, lies at the root of the modern scientific name, the late Latin dama, and the German Damhirsch, French daim, Dutch Damhert, Italian daino. The Hebrew name of the fallow deer, יחמור (yahmur) comes from the Aramaic language. In Aramaic language, ‘חמרא’ (hamra) means ‘red’ or ‘brown’.

  4. Another zoonomical note: The European brown bear turns out to be the same species as the North American grizzly, Ursus horribilis. The latter has some brown variants, particularly in Alaska.
    Old but still useful lesson on dealing with attacks by bears:
    If it’s a grizzly bear, play dead. Grizzlies don’t eat carrion, and may play with you a bit but will otherwise ignore you.
    If it’s a black bear, fight back. Such a bear is starving, and will need direct discouragement. Throw a rock or use a club.
    If it’s a polar bear, it doesn’t matter what you do. You will be killed and eaten.

  5. The same kind of thing has happened in the Pacific Northwest with ‘salmon’. The species salmo salmo is the original referent, but here the referent is one of the three or four oncorhynchus species people favor. If you were to show any of the salmo species to anyone here, without the store wrapping and label “Atlantic salmon”, the person would call it trout or steeelhead.

  6. James Crippen says:

    > without the store wrapping and label “Atlantic salmon”, the person would call it trout or steeelhead.
    I dunno, I’d probably just call it “crap”. Or “that damned farm fish”.
    In Alaska, where I was born and raised, there is a distinction made between the grizzly and brown bears by some people, particularly hunters. They’re both recognized as being the same species, but the grizzly is a larger variation common in places like Kodiak and Admiralty Island. The regular brown bear is smaller and is found mostly in the Interior. Coloration is essentially the same, only size is different between them. So you will hear people saying things like “oh it wasn’t a grizzly, just a brown”.
    In addition, Alaska has the glacier bear. It’s an ordinary black bear but has a glossy sliver-bluish coloration to its fur, reminiscent of the blue-white color of glacier ice.
    Polar bears don’t always kill people. They only do so when they’re hungry. Fortunately, when a polar bear is near people it’s often feeding on garbage and hence isn’t that hungry. But it’s true that Homo sapiens isn’t necessarily at the top of the food chain in the Arctic.
    Back on the original topic, until I was a teenager I had believed that the names “moose” and “elk” were synonymous. I had plenty of moose in my front yard keeping me from going to school, but I’d never seen an elk. Someone told me that Europeans call moose “elk” so I just figured they were one in the same. Later I read a book that described the importation of elk to Kodiak (or Afognak?) Island by Teddy Roosevelt; this forced me to separate the two names.

  7. Siganus Sutor says:

    “Bison Bill” may sound odd, but the bison* and the buffalo** could well be the same animal, while the buffalo is at least two: one that can be found in Wyoming, the other one in Africa. (Not to mention the Asian Bubalus bubalis.)
    * word of Germanic origin
    ** word of Greek origin

  8. The Oxford Introduction to Proto-Indo-European and The Proto-Indo-European World, eh? The sample chapter looks worthy indeed. I’ll certainly be after a copy.

  9. My undergraduate professor for historical linguistics is particularly fond of this example. He likes to pass out a photograph of a moose in class while he discusses the issues of semantic change and reconstruction.

  10. At least moose and elk are two different animals. The zoonomical thing that has always confused me is reindeer and caribou. They are the same species! Caribou are wild and live in North America. Reindeer are domesticated and live in Europe.
    I remember how disappointed I was as a child when my Mom took me to Boston Common to see the “real live reindeer”. Geek that I was even then, I exclaimed: “But those are caribou!”

  11. James Crippen says:

    Caribou or reindeer, they sure do taste good… :-P

  12. I suspect a similar thing happened with “sparrow”. What we call a sparrow over here is a passerid; in the US the same word refers to an emberizid, which is a completely different family, albeit of similar sized birds.

  13. James Crippen scripsit:
    > Polar bears don’t always kill people.
    I realize that. The advice deals specifically with attacks by bears.
    I probably should have brought up the “robin”; the American bird so named (Turdus migratorius) is not only unrelated to the original Robin Redbreast (Erithacus rubecula), its breast is not even red! Supposedly they are good eating, however, being slow and easy to catch.
    “Reindeer” and “caribou” are matched by “furze”, “whin”, and “gorse”, which are not only all names for Ulex europaeus, they are names used in the same country.

  14. Thank you for this; I am living in Germany where people insist the animal called “Elk” and the animal called “Moose” are one and the same! Probably the same stubbornheadedness that makes folks think Karl May knew something about Indians…!
    “Elch” is used to describe both creatures, here, but WHY? If one is a deer and the other not…
    I should mention that Germans have two different kinds of what Englishspeakers call “Mosquito” – one is “Moecke”, the common kind here, the other is the “large dangerous tropical” “Moskito.” I guess their Elk is my Mosquito…

  15. I should mention that Germans have two different kinds of what Englishspeakers call “Mosquito” – one is “Moecke”, the common kind here, the other is the “large dangerous tropical” “Moskito.” I guess their Elk is my Mosquito…
    And I got confused, back when I was living in the Canary Islands, by someone referring to fruit flies in our apartment building as “mosquitos.” (Then I realized that “mosquito” is, after all, the diminuitive of “mosca” = fly, and fruit flies are small flies…)

  16. Siganus Sutor says:

    Anne : « I should mention that Germans have two different kinds of what Englishspeakers call “Mosquito” – one is “Moecke”, the common kind here, the other is the “large dangerous tropical” “Moskito.” »
    Well, some dangerous tropical mosquitoes aren’t very big. The anopheles transmitting malaria, a disease that kills more than one million people each year, is just a few millimetres long (around 5 mm). The small but aggressive Aedes (“odious”) albopictus is about the same size but it carries the particularly painful chikungunya* which infected hundreds of thousands of people on Reunion Island this year.
    * chikungunya : a Swahili word apparently meaning something like “bent man disease”

  17. Siganus Sutor says:

    PS: There is apparently a controversy about whether “chikungunya” is a Swahili (as generally said) or a Makonde word. If some people versed in East African languages can say something about it in this blog… (It won’t change much in the suffering of those hit by the disease, but since the word is now commonly used here and there around the globe, alas, — it has even become a daily obsession in some places — it might be of some interest to know the truth about its origin, just for the sake of stopping the propagation of virus-like false etymology…)

  18. Per Jørgensen says:

    Thank you for the elk and moose clarification. In Norwegian, a animal of the species Alces alces is an elg. There’s no ambiguity until you try learning English or, worse, you encounter, like I did, a Canadian who will cheerfully proceed to try convincing you that North American moose are much larger than their European counterparts (the size of one’s country’s animals evidently being a measure of something important) and are therefore most likely a different species. This particular Canadian felt elk sounded more diminutive and should therefore be the correct name for the European moose.
    The generic term for deer species other than moose and reindeer is hjort. Reindeer and caribou are reinsdyr or simply rein.
    The dyr in reinsdyr, by the way, means animal, as in German tier. As far as I can tell, both dyr and tier are descendants of the same root as the now specialized English deer. (Should you ever decide to learn Norwegian, be aware that the homonym dyr means expensive, in other words dear as in high-priced but not as in cherished, which would be kjær. This isn’t entirely trivial: Expensive is an adjective frequently and appropriately employed in all contexts Norway and Norwegian.)
    Trivia: There are in fact wild reindeer in Norway, and it is not uncommon to go reindeer hunting the same way you’d go deer hunting in the U.S. and Canada.

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