n. pl. elk or elks
1. A large reddish-brown or grayish deer (Cervus canadensis) of western North America, having long, branching antlers in the male. The elk is sometimes considered a subspecies of the closely related red deer. Also called wapiti.
2. Chiefly British The moose.
3. A light, pliant leather of horsehide or calfskin, tanned and finished to resemble elk hide.
[Middle English, the European elk or moose (Alces alces), probably alteration of Old English eolh.]
Word History: In British English, elk refers to the species of large deer (scientific name Alces alces) known as moose in North America. In North American English, elk refers to a completely different species of deer, Cervus canadensis, that is closely related to the red deer (Cervus elaphus) of Europe. How did this confusing situation come about? The word elk comes from Old English eolh and originally referred to A. alces. Although the animal called eolh became extinct in Great Britain before AD 1000, the English were still aware of its existence on the continent, and so the word eolh survived into Middle English as elk. By the 17th century, due to hunting and the increase in human population, the red deer had also become scarce in the southern part of England, although some were maintained on wealthy estates to be hunted for sport. The average English person would thus have had only a vague knowledge of the red deer (C. elaphus), while the elk (A. alces) would have simply been a very large deer of distant Scandinavia known only by reputation. When English settlers arrived in North America, however, they were suddenly face-to-face with two large deer species and needed words to distinguish them. Although the elk (A. alces) was abundant, settlers did not identify it with the elk of Europe. Instead, they began calling it a moose, using a word borrowed from an Algonquian language of eastern North America. This left the name elk still available, and the English settlers gave it to a large deer, C. canadensis, that resembles the red deer of Europe. To add to the confusion, C. canadensis—the animal that North Americans call elk—is sometimes considered a subspecies of the red deer (C. elaphus). In North America, therefore, the words elk and red deer are sometimes treated as synonyms, both referring to the species C. elaphus.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2019 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
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