c. 1600, "European wild ox," from French bison (15c.), from Latin bison "wild ox," borrowed from Proto-Germanic *wisand- "aurochs" (source also of Old Norse visundr, Old High German wisunt "bison," Old English/Middle English wesend, which is not attested after c. 1400). Possibly ultimately of Baltic or Slavic origin, and meaning "the stinking animal," in reference to its scent while rutting (see weasel).
The animal formerly was widespread on the continent, including the British Isles, but in 20c. survived in the wild only on a forest reserve in Poland. Not to be confused with the aurochs. The name was applied 1690s to the North American species commonly mis-called a buffalo, which formerly ranged as far as Virginia and Georgia but by 1902 was deemed by Century Dictionary "apparently soon to become extinct as a wild animal." It has since recovered numbers on federal land. Related: Bisontine