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Why are 'beef' and 'pork' and 'mutton' used to refer to the meat of cows and pigs and sheep? Other animals keep the same name. Is it just some weird preference in the English language?

  • You probably want to say: "Why are 'beef' and 'pork' (and 'mutton') used to refer to the meat of cows and pigs and sheep?". "Why do A and B are used" is a strange construction to English ears, and in any language it's clearer to point out that you're talking about the words rather than the things they refer to. – John Lawrence Aspden Aug 31 '14 at 12:37
  • not to forget swine – Hagen von Eitzen Sep 1 '14 at 12:48
  • October 2012 on ELU: Saxon vs French – Andrew Leach Sep 1 '14 at 15:12
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    Just a side-note: In Czech, it's very similar, the common name of the animal has a different root than the name of the meat, exactly for these three: prase-vepřové (pig-pork), kráva-hovězí (cow-beef), ovce-skopové (sheep-mutton). As well, cows and sheep are almost the only animals where the word for him and her have a different root, it's therefore more urgent to have a separate word for the meat. – yo' Sep 1 '14 at 19:26
53

This is fundamentally a class distinction.

With any given amount of land and labor, more food value can be created from growing grain and vegetables than from growing animals for meat. In the medieval economy, the local lord had title to all the land and had a large amount of labor at his disposal as a sort of tax on his peasant subjects. The lord could thus afford to invest a portion of that land and labor into growing meat for his table. But the ordinary peasant family, with only their own labor and a small allotment of land, could not afford meat; they instead ate grain and vegetables.

For a couple of centuries after the Norman Conquest in 1066, the ruling class of England spoke mostly French, and spoke of the meat they ate using the French words for the animals: boeuf, porc, mouton. The peasants whose labor went into raising these animals for their lords' tables continued to call these animals by their native English names: cow, pig, sheep. And the lexical distinction remained after the landlord class adopted English. They had spoken of the food for several generations as beef, pork, mutton; and there was no corresponding term in English for the food, since the English words designated primarily the animal.

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    The one animal commonly raised and eaten by peasant farmers was chicken, which doesn't have the distinction. Another example is venison (from Norman) versus deer (from Old English) – MSalters Sep 1 '14 at 8:32
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    bear in mind whilst we do generally use chicken for both bird and meat, we also use the word pullet typically referring to a young chicken. Pullet = poulet. – gbjbaanb Sep 1 '14 at 14:45
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    But the French word boeuf refers to the cow's meat rather than the animal. AFAIK, the French word for the animal is vache – Dónal Sep 2 '14 at 11:37
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    @Dónal I'm not knowledgeable in the history of the French language; but I believe that the base sense of boeuf is steer, ox, the castrated male, and that of vache is cow, the female. Certainly boeuf derives from Latin bos, bov-, which was the animal. – StoneyB on hiatus Sep 2 '14 at 11:50
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'Beef', 'pork' and 'mutton' were originally the French words for cows, pigs and sheep. 'Cow', 'pig', and 'sheep' were originally Anglo-Saxon.

After the Norman Conquest, the French-speaking Lord would say 'Beef!', and the Anglo-Saxon peasant would go off and kill a cow.

This class distinction between the Germanic and Latin roots of modern English is all over the language. That's why it's rude to say 'fuck' and polite to say 'intercourse'. Although of course really well-educated people countersignal and just say 'fuck' anyway.

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    "Boeuf", "Porc" and "Mouton" are the words in French if you wanted to show that. – Tristan Warner-Smith Aug 31 '14 at 17:54
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    today, thanks to the Big Bang Theory TV show, well-educated persons say coitus :-) – gbjbaanb Sep 1 '14 at 14:47
  • D'accord Tristan, mais ch'sais pas les mots en Normande ancienne. – John Lawrence Aspden Sep 1 '14 at 19:40
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There is no reason for it, it's just kind of a euphemism. If you've ever seen the movie Babe, you can understand why we don't want to think of our bacon as pig. I actually find it a more odd that we say lamb and chicken than that we say pork and beef.

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    Personally I think what's most odd is that we mix - we're not consistent. StoneyB's answer explains that though. – OJFord Aug 31 '14 at 16:25
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    -1 Actually, as has been shown in the other answers, there is a reason for it (and we have the French to blame). – IQAndreas Sep 1 '14 at 9:21
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    Modern vegetarian ideology is the product of peoples in big cities loosing touch with the nature. They wouldn't even come to minds of people living when the language has formed. – Danubian Sailor Sep 1 '14 at 11:18
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    -1 for inventing 'answers' if you don't know, don't answer. This 'funny' comment even doesn't attempt to answer the question. – FolksLord Sep 6 '14 at 5:53
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    @FolksLord Not so. While wrong, this is an honest attempt to answer the question and not an attempt at humour or irrelevant. Leaving the downvoted answer in place (as opposed to removing it) lets others with the same thinking know that it's not correct. – Esoteric Screen Name Sep 6 '14 at 15:15

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