Etymology and naming
Alces alces is called a “moose” in North American English, but an “elk” in British English. The word “elk” in North American English refers to a completely different species of deer, Cervus canadensis, also called the wapiti. A mature male moose is called a bull, a mature female a cow, and an immature moose of either sex a calf.
According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the etymology of the species is “of obscure history”. In Classical Antiquity, the animal was known as ἄλκη álkē in Greek and alces in Latin, words probably borrowed from a Germanic language or another language of northern Europe. By the 8th century, during the Early Middle Ages, the species was known as Old English: elch, elh, eolh, derived from the Proto-Germanic: *elho-, *elhon- and possibly connected with the Old Norse: elgr. Later, the species became known in Middle English as elk, elcke, or elke, appearing in the Latinized form alke, with the spelling alce borrowed directly from Latin: alces. Noting that elk “is not the normal phonetic representative” of the Old English elch, the Oxford English Dictionary derives elk from Middle High German: elch, itself from Old High German: elaho.
The word “elk” has cognates in other Indo-European languages, e.g. elg in Danish/Norwegian; älg in Swedish; alnis in Latvian; Elch in German; and łoś in Polish. In the continental European languages, these forms of the word “elk” always refer to Alces alces.
The youngest elk bones in Great Britain were found in Scotland and are roughly 3,900 years old. The elk was probably extinct on the island before 900 AD. The word “elk” remained in usage because of English-speakers’ familiarity with the species in Continental Europe; however, without any living animals around to serve as a reference, the meaning became rather vague, and by the 17th century “elk” had a meaning similar to “large deer”. Dictionaries of the 18th century simply described “elk” as a deer that was “as large as a horse”.
Confusingly, the word “elk” is used in North America to refer to a different animal, Cervus canadensis, which is also called by the Algonquian indigenous name, “wapiti”. The British began colonizing America in the 17th century, and found two common species of deer for which they had no names. The wapiti appeared very similar to the red deer of Europe (which itself was then almost extinct in Southern Britain) although it was much larger and was not red; the two species are indeed closely related, though distinct behaviorally and genetically. The moose was a rather strange-looking deer to the colonists, and they often adopted local names for both. In the early days of American colonization, the wapiti was often called a gray moose and the moose was often called a black moose, but early accounts of the animals varied wildly, adding to the confusion.
The word “moose” had first entered English by 1606 and is borrowed from the Algonquian languages (compare the Narragansett moos and Eastern Abenaki mos; according to early sources, these were likely derived from moosu, meaning “he strips off”), and possibly involved forms from multiple languages mutually reinforcing one another. The Proto-Algonquian form was *mo·swa.
Early European explorers in North America, particularly in Virginia where there were no moose, called the wapiti “elk” because of its size and resemblance to familiar-looking deer like the red deer. The moose resembled the “German elk” (the moose of continental Europe), which was less familiar to the British colonists. For a long time neither species had an official name, but were called a variety of things. Eventually, in North America the wapiti became known as an elk while the moose retained its Anglicized Native-American name. In 1736, Samuel Dale wrote to the Royal Society of Great Britain:
The common light-grey moose, called by the Indians, Wampoose, and the large or black-moose, which is the beast whose horns I herewith present. As to the grey moose, I take it to be no larger than what Mr. John Clayton, in his account of the Virginia Quadrupeds, calls the Elke … was in all respects like those of our red-deer or stags, only larger … The black moose is (by all that have hitherto writ of it) accounted a very large creature. … The stag, buck, or male of this kind has a palmed horn, not like that of our common or fallow-deer, but the palm is much longer, and more like that of the German elke.