Last week, the US declared the bison its national mammal. This thundering ungulate makes for a powerful choice, both literally and symbolically: American settlers nearly brought this brawny bovine, whose massive herds once roamed the Great Plains and were so central to many Native American cultures, to near extinction. The name bison, appropriately enough, tells a similar tale.
Originally, the bison was a type of wild ox found throughout Europe, even in England. It’s now found only in the forests of Lithuania. In antiquity, this bison was also associated with the now-extinct aurochs or urus. Humans, clearly, have not been kind to the bison.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) finds its earliest evidence of bison in a Latin form, bisontes, in the late 1300s, but the word, along with the animal, then disappears from the record. It resurfaces in the 1600s, especially in historical texts like the King James Bible and classical translations. Come the 1690s, European explorers applied bison, also first in Latin form, to its new-world counterpart, Bison bison, where the word now largely roams.
Bison indeed derives from the Latin bison. English either borrowed it directly or from a French intermediary. But the word was probably not a native species to the Latin. Rome likely borrowed its word for this roamer from a Germanic source, which historical linguists represent in *wisand, itself likely migrating from a Balto-Slavic home.
Germanic languages helped populate this *wisand’s herd, including the Old English wesend. This word is as extinct as the mammal from the Isles. Except for an unlikely cognate: weasel. The bison and weasel certainly make for the sort of odd couple we’d only expect to find in a Disney movie, but their names, some etymologists believe, share a common root that notes the musky odor they emit, especially when rutting. Literally, they are the “stinking animals.”
Now, the US uses bison interchangeably with buffalo for its majestic mammal, though buffalo technically names the American bison’s distant Asian and African brethren. (Buffalo comes from the Greek, βούβαλος or boubalos, originally used of antelopes.) They’re very different species, but these early Europeans dubbed Bison bison “buffalo” based on the likeness between the old- and new-world bovines. And well before they even used bison, in fact: the OED dates the earliest American buffalo usage to the 1630s.
The story of the word bison issues its own powerful, if small, reminder: the extinction of wildlife is even registered in language. Let’s be sure bison is never entered as “obsolete” in the dictionary. A good way to start is by keeping your distance, literally and symbolically, from wildlife, if we are to learn from a recent episode in Yellowstone National Park.