A Staff Report from the Straight Dope Science Advisory Board

Why do we eat "beef" and "pork" rather than "cow" and "pig"?

June 4, 2002

Dear Straight Dope:

This question has been bugging me for a while now and I was hoping you could shed some light on it for me. Why is cow meat called beef not just just called cow? The same goes for pig--why isn't it "pig chops" rather than pork chops? I mean, we call lamb chops lamb chops. So what's the deal with beef and pork? I have speculated that it's a means for people to distance themselves, mentally, from the meat they eat. But that's just my thought. Do you know the reason?

This differentiation goes back to the Norman Conquest of England. The names of the domestic animals are all of Anglo-Saxon origin, while the names of the meats derived from them come from Norman French and ultimately Latin. The common explanation for this is that after the conquest, Anglo-Saxons were often restricted to menial roles such as cowherd, swineherd, etc. Their Norman masters were the ones who actually got to eat the viands (Middle French viande). This is a plausible argument. But proven? No.

Cow: Old English cu; akin to Old High German kuo
Beef: Old French buef, ox, from Latin bouv-, bos, head of cattle
Calf: Old English cealf; akin to Old High German kalb, calf
Veal: from Middle French veel, from Latin vitellus, small calf, diminutive of vitulus, calf
Pig: Middle English pigge
Hog: from Old English hogg
Swine: Old English swIn; akin to Old High German swIn swine
Pork: Old French porc, pig, from Latin porcus
Sheep: from Old English scEap; akin to Old High German scAf,

Mutton: from Old French moton, ram

Some think the servant talk/gentry talk argument is a little too pat.  In The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way, Bill Bryson gives the explanation above but in a footnote says:

It should be noted that [Robert] Burchfield, in The English Language, calls this distinction between field names and food names "an enduring myth" on the grounds that the French terms were using for living animals as well (he cites Samuel Johnson referring to a cow as "a beef"), but even so I think the statement above is a reasonable generalization.

For what it's worth, German makes no field/food distinction: the neuter singular for cattle is Rind, beef is Rindfleisch; pork is Schwein and pork is Schweinefleisch.  I'd say the same is true of Spanish but things aren't quite so clear-cut. Carne means meat generically, but is usually understood to mean beef. If you want to specify beef, you say carne de res, res simply meaning beast or animal. A cow is vaca. Oddly enough, rosbif (roast beef) and bistec (beefsteak) derive from English--although bistec often just refers to the cut, and I have seen restaurants offering bistec de puerco. Puerco can mean either pig or pork, but pigs are often called cerdo and cochino. Cordero means lamb in both senses, and ternera means both calf and veal.

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