Elk NetworkElk or Wapiti: What’s in a Name?

Conservation | September 6, 2016

Native American tribes had hundreds of names for elk, including the Shawnee’s wapiti, which some Europeans adopted. Other settlers called it America’s red deer after its smaller European cousin, as well as cerf de Canada, Canada stag, round-horned stag and stag of the Americas. But elk is what stuck.

The name was originally a misnomer, as elk is the common name in Europe for that continent’s subspecies of moose (Alces alces). Early settlers, likely in Virginia, encountered two types of ungulates—whitetails and wapiti. They named the larger of the two “elk” in reference to the great moose of Europe’s northern tier, which many had likely heard about but few had apparently seen. To further confuse the situation, European settlers then adopted the Algonquian name moos upon seeing the North American Alces alces.

Despite the misnomers, the name elk was already widely used by the late 18th century. The journals of Lewis and Clark referred to the animal as “elk,” referencing the species more than 570 times. Over the years, Theodore Roosevelt and many others have embraced “wapiti.” But as you can see from this magazine’s namesake organization, and by the countless Elk Creeks and Elk Mountains from coast to coast, it hasn’t quite caught on.What do you think: Elk or Wapiti? Let us know below.