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 By 1600 or so the inherited designation for Cervus elaphus had been replaced by the innovative and descriptive red deer [and around the same time the species pretty much disappeared from southern Britain].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.