Why We Call “Elk” Wapiti, and Why You Might Want to as Well
If you’re like most Anglophone (English-speaking) Canadians, what we call a wapiti is probably the same animal you’d call an elk. This name discrepancy actually happens more often than you’d think in Canada. Most people know that the correct name for a “buffalo” is a bison, but did you know a caribou is also referred to as a reindeer?
The problem is that the names given to North American animals by European settlers weren’t always that accurate. Our North American bison are only scarcely related to true buffalo, and elk — the european word for moose — was used for wapiti which are actually a type of deer.
Wapiti as a word dates back to about the 19th century. Like the word moose, wapiti is an americanization of a First Nation’s word. It comes from waapiti. Waapiti in turn came from the word wap meaning white. Wap referred to the white tail and rump characteristic of the wapiti. The words moose and waapiti actually have similar origins: the algonquian languages. Waapiti was used by both the Shawnee people and the Cree nation.
By using the word wapiti, we try to remember the historical roots of Canada and the heritage of the First Nation people who were here, hunting, and naming animals long before the European settlers arrived. Wapiti is (one of) the original names for the animal, and the colloquial word elk is inaccurate and frankly a little confusing.
That’s because the word elk (as we mentioned earlier) refers to a completely different animal. Across the Atlantic Ocean, Brits use elk to describe the animal we all know as a moose. When British settlers came to Canada, they saw how much larger our wapiti are than the European red deer, and they thought it had to be related to the European moose – or as they called them – elk. Despite its huge size, the wapiti is a type of deer; one of the largest species of deer, in fact. We feel the confusion caused by having two different animals referred to by the same name is best avoided.
The world has changed a lot since the First Nations in Canada and the US held the dominant cultures and languages. Part of being a member of a globalized world is being aware of where our words come from, what they mean around the world, and how using them affects other people. At Rangeland, we feel that the European name elk is inaccurate and can be confusing, so we choose to use wapiti. We believe this term is more true to the origins of North America, the Algonquian language, and the First Nation cultures that were here first. We hope you do too.