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I asked my friend what he was cooking and he replied, "I am cooking meat." I asked "what meat?". He said, "dude, meat. Don't you know meat?" I asked him again in a more clear way, "Yes, but what meat? Chicken, mutton, fish?" He replied, "Mutton."

I asked him why he didn't say "mutton" when I asked him "what meat?"

He said that when we say meat, we mean mutton. I said that "meat" is meat, be it a fish or chicken or mutton. So my question is, who is correct? When we say meat, we mean the flesh of any kind of animal which we eat or does in cooking meat specifically refers to mutton?

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Fun fact: some people don't consider chicken meat; a lot of people don't think fish is meat (e.g., pescatarians). – Damkerng T. Jan 8 at 9:46
It depends which country you are in! Strange but it's fact! – Maulik V Jan 8 at 10:55
Religiously speaking, Catholics are not supposed to eat meat of Fridays during Lent, so birds and animals aren't allowed, but fish is perfectly acceptable. – Karen Jan 8 at 14:38
@Karen: I think you meant mammals instead of animals (fish and birds are animals too). Tortoises, frogs, manatees and the like have been historically interesting - if they live in the water, can Catholics eat them on Fridays? – MSalters Jan 8 at 15:12
Considering that most Americans don't even eat mutton, we clearly don't mean "mutton" when we say "meat". – Catija Jan 8 at 19:06

10 Answers 10

up vote 51 down vote accepted

The use of these words varies between countries.

Your friend is clearly employing the Indian English colloquial use of the word. I have visited India several times and it doesn't take long to pick up the differences. I assume the Indian variation is due to the prevalence of vegetarians in the country and the limited number of animals that are eaten.

In India you will often hear menus described as:
Veg = Vegetarian
Non-Veg = Chicken (Murghi)
Meat = Lamb, mutton or goat

So, asking "What meat?" is irrelevant as it will never be Beef or Pork.

There are many Indian restaurants in Britain that have Meat Curry (or similar) on the menu, in these cases it will usually be Goat.

Elsewhere, as others have said, meat will encompass the flesh of almost any animal.

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+1 for the Indian usage. But in the US, where most people who eat meat eat any kind of meat, we still care what kind because they taste different. I'm curious how that's handled in India if mostly a single word is used for all kinds. – Karen Jan 8 at 14:36
The majority religion in India is Hinduism, and Hindus don't eat beef. Next most common is Islam, and Muslims don't eat pork. So lab, mutton and goat are the only meats that are commonly eaten by everyone who eats meat. They taste pretty similar (to the point where I don't know if the meat samosas at my local Indian restaurant contain mutton, lamb or goat.) – ssav Jan 8 at 15:02
@ssav mutton is usually much stronger. goat is more springy under the teeth. lamb is supposed to be more tender and less strong in taste. but in a samosa I am indeed not sure the difference would be obvious. – njzk2 Jan 8 at 19:20
Sheep and goats are different animals, so the assumption that "meat" refers to mutton is not justified in this locale. – Kaz Jan 10 at 18:49
@ssav - I assume you meant 'Lamb' and not Labrador - in the "So lab, mutton and goat" comment. – SeanR Jan 11 at 13:06

In American English, meat is a general term for any flesh, so your question was perfectly logical. Asking for something more specific than "meat" should generate a response such as "beef", "chicken", etc.

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OK, I believe that we're all in agreement that "meat" and "mutton" are not synonyms.  And I agree with you, but be advised that many Americans believe (and some, quite stridently) that poultry (birds) and seafood are not meat. – Scott Jan 8 at 22:29
@Scott out of curiosity, how would someone who doesn't believe chickens are meat say "cutting the meat off of the chicken"? (in the UK you'd do this when carving a roast) – icc97 Jan 9 at 13:59
I don't know.  Maybe I shouldn't have said "many"; offhand, I can recall encountering only a couple such people.  They weren't friends, and I didn't take the time to make a thorough study of their language patterns. – Scott Jan 9 at 15:59
@icc97 in the absence of context, meat will be assumed to refer to red meat. That doesn't mean that people wouldn't refer to the meat of a chicken as well. – terdon Jan 11 at 10:16
@icc97: In the same way that people think of "hair" as what grows on top of your head. The thing on your chest is not "hair". It's "chest hair". – slebetman Jan 11 at 10:54

OALD says that 'meat' is a flesh of an animal or a bird that we can eat. It includes mutton as well. But, mutton is not a word for every type of meat as mutton denotes meat of only an adult (fully-grown) sheep. Check also the Merriam-Webster definition of mutton.

Therefore, you were right when you asked "What meat?" When we say meat, we mean the flesh of any kind of animal or bird which we eat including mutton (meat of an adult sheep).

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Strange definition there... 'bird' is a subset of 'animal' not an alternative. – AllInOne Jan 8 at 18:48
@AllInOne It's only in recent times that "animal" covers birds as well. For example, the Bible defines them separately and has influenced thought for centuries. Previously, birds weren't considered animals, they were... well... birds! Saying "animal or bird" now might seem redundant but it avoids ambiguity. – CJ Dennis Jan 9 at 1:50

This question seems very country/culture rather than language specific.

In the UK (as the question is tagged ) if you said 'meat' you could never expect the other person to know what you mean exactly.

You might get asked the question "Would you like meat or fish?" as some people have a strong preference.

As Varun KN points out they do categorise Red and White meat. But you'd still never say "We're having red meat".

Sometimes you might see a 'meat pie' in a shop but that would mean that it contains more than one type of meat.

Separately in Belgium, one of the main dishes is stoofvlees which literally means "meat stew" - but always contains beef. But in the UK this would be referred to as beef stew.

Ground meat is referred to as 'minced meat'. This is assumed to be beef or pork, but you would still often refer to it as 'beef mince' or 'pork mince'. This shouldn't then be confused with mincemeat for mince pies which doesn't contain any meat :)

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Note that your link for mincemeat contradicts your sentence that includes the link: "Mincemeat is a mixture of chopped dried fruit, distilled spirits and spices, and sometimes beef suet, beef, or venison." – Todd Wilcox Jan 10 at 20:59
@ToddWilcox quite true, but again my answer is culture specific, I grew up in the 20th century in the UK and as it says later in the article: "By the mid-twentieth century the term was also used to describe a similar mixture that does not include meat". To me, eating mincemeat with meat would be like eating bacon ice cream (which Heston Blumenthal did do as an April fools' joke). – icc97 Jan 10 at 21:23

I'm not a native speaker. But where I live, meat isn't referred to as chicken or fish. Technically, "meat" is the flesh of any animal or bird that is generally consumed as food, cooked or uncooked. If I go to the local bakery and ask for meat cutlets, they would hand me cutlets made with beef or mutton or veal. This is because there are exclusive chicken and fish cutlets and they aren't referred to as meat. Now this doesn't strictly mean that "meat = mutton".

Different types of meats are given here, and from this,

White Meat : meat such as chicken or pork that is pale after you have cooked it.

Red Meat : meat such as beef or lamb or mutton that is red before it is cooked and dark after you have cooked it.

are the two main categories of meats. When people refer to something as "meat", it is generally assumed that it's a 'red meat', which is either Beef, Veal or Mutton.

Let's take an example:

MOM: Hey, I'm cooking meat tonight !!

Now, on hearing this, I would know that she's not making chicken, because if she were, she would have said "I'm cooking chicken tonight". Same is the case with fish. This is something that just caught on. There is no rule that meat is just red meat... but out of prolonged reference to red meat as meat, it kind of stuck. So your friend isn't wrong and neither are you.

Having said all that, let's eat some meat !

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Despite the pork industry's advertising campaign, many, many people class pork with the red meat group because it's redder than chicken, and comes from a hoofed animal. – Karen Jan 8 at 14:32
Note that many people do count chicken as meat. – psmears Jan 8 at 16:34
I'm originally from California, if someone said "We're having meat", it would not exclude chicken. And it might even include fish. To me, meat is generally the muscle of an animal consumed as food. Organ meats are also technically "meat" but would more likely be referred to specifically and would be less likely to be included in the general word. – ErikE Jan 8 at 16:49
It's important to note that white meat vs. red meat has two definitions; one used commonly and one used in nutrition science. In the scientific definition, meat with a certain level of myoglobin is red meat, and pork — and all mammals — qualify. The pork industry's ad campaign is particularly disingenuous because it uses the common definition, where pork may be white meat, to imply that it should be considered in the same class for health reasons, which is decidedly untrue. – mattdm Jan 10 at 16:17
It's not uncommon for scientific and common definitions to vary — consider the whole "tomatoes are a fruit!" thing. (True, in scientific definition, but so are corn kernels and bean pods.) – mattdm Jan 10 at 16:18

This is a culture-specific issue to immigrants (and their descendants) from India into Britain. Indian food is extremely popular in Britain; even small provincial towns have one or more (often family run) restaurant.

Since Hindus don't eat beef on religious grounds and few Sikhs from the region do either, it is a widely held convention among the community that meat automatically means lamb/mutton and anything else is named (goat, chicken, fish etc.)

This usage is not correct but is an accepted norm (for those communities) where it is not challenged by 'trading standards', departments of local authorities nationwide whose duties includes ensuring that all food is correctly labelled.

Evidence to support this usage is widely available in the form of Tandoori restaurant menus up and down the UK, where a bing image search of menus will almost universally use meat to describe mutton/lamb dishes. This can be compared against menus from restaurants of other nationalities (such as Chinese or Italian which are both common here) where they will always name the meat used in the dish.

The use of meat to mean mutton is not correct and Brits would use the term to describe any animal flesh (except fish).

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Meat indeed refers to the flesh of another animal, but it isn't always attributed to animals.

It can also refer to plants, though to use meat in that context, you would need to be in that context.

The meatiness of the broccoli was very tough. The meat of a tree has two parts, the heart and the white part.

Meat is defined as the most consumable part of something, rather it be an animal or a book. Although it isn't very used, one could say something like:

The meat of the story is in the beginning of that book.

It can refer to the chief part of something.

The meat of the music is the bass.

Though are very nontraditional usages of the word, but they are understandable. The usage of the word meat in those sentences add emphasis, because meat is attributed to the good part of something.

I will agree with you, though, on your argument with your friend. Meat is not exclusive to mutton. The only time it is exclusive is when you already know what the meat is.

Suppose you are eating lamb stew. You could easily get away with just saying,

This meat is tough.

It would indeed refer to the lamb, assuming that was the only meat in the stew.

To even further prove your correctness with your friend.. You can order meat-lovers pizzas and traditionally, mutton is not on a pizza.

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When I was a child (Scotland in the 1950's) being "off your meat" meant having no appetite. Meat meant food in general. The Selkirk Grace https://sco.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Selkirk_Grace I believe uses the word in this way. Catholics referred to seafood as fruit of the sea if memory serves, but since Vatican II have been able to eat flesh of acceptable beasties when they like.

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"Sir, I want to make a suggestion to the authorities".

"OK,we shall surely consider if there is some meat in it".

Meat here means substance.

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I think the OP literally meant "meat" and not how it is metaphorically used. – Varun KN Jan 11 at 6:52

I am not a native English speaker, neither is this intended as a full answer.

When I say "I am cooking meat." and someone asks "What meat?", I may also answer "dude, meat. Don't you know meat?". My English knowledge expects the question "Which meat?" if someone wants to know if is beef, chicken, etc...

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You should avoid asking questions in your answers, as it may end up being deleted. Make sure you post it as an answer and always check that your answer has not been included in a previous answers. You're free to answer based on your knowledge level, as long as it doesn't mislead the OP (Original Poster). If its a question or an opinion about something, but doesn't qualify as an answer, make sure to put it up as a comment. Cheers ! – Varun KN Jan 11 at 7:59
Sorry, I do not have enough reputation to comment. Please, feel free to move it to being a comment. This is why I said "It is not intended as a full answer", and of course: It is not a question. I deleted the question. – rexkogitans Jan 11 at 8:32

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