Why is it beef, not cow?
December 4, 2005 4:06 PM   Subscribe

Why do we use euphemistic names for some kinds of meat?

For example:

chicken -> chicken
duck -> duck
horse -> "horse meat"
cow -> beef, veal
pig -> pork, bacon
sheep -> lamb, mutton

Why don't we call cow meat "cow" instead of beef? Even stranger, I've noticed some (primarily American) media referring to cows as beef. Is this primarily a distaste-with-talking-about-killing-and-eating, or something else? When did it start?

Bonus: can you think of other euphemistic meat names (collect them all!)
posted by 5MeoCMP to Food & Drink (52 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Most meat names come from Norman French. You can see the similarities in modern French animal names: mutton < mouton (sheep)br> beef < boeuf (cow)br> veal < veau (calf)br> pork < porc (pig)br> The theory is that the Anglo-Saxons who raised the animals in the fields used the English names, but the people who cooked and served the meat used the Norman French names, since that was the language spoken by the nobles (who were eating the meat).
posted by nomis at 4:10 PM on December 4, 2005


Here is an excerpt from this page:

The influence of the Normans can be illustrated by looking at two words, beef and cow. Beef, commonly eaten by the aristocracy, derives from the Anglo-Norman, while the Anglo-Saxon commoners, who tended the cattle, retained the Germanic cow. Many legal terms, such as indict, jury, and verdict have Anglo-Norman roots because the Normans ran the courts. This split, where words commonly used by the aristocracy have Romantic roots and words frequently used by the Anglo-Saxon commoners have Germanic roots, can be seen in many instances.
posted by Alison at 4:10 PM on December 4, 2005 [1 favorite]


Dang, I completely fucked up the formatting on that. Here it is again ...

Most meat names come from Norman French. You can see the similarities in modern French animal names:

mutton = mouton (sheep)
beef = boeuf (cow)
veal = veau (calf)
pork = porc (pig)

The theory is that the Anglo-Saxons who raised the animals in the fields used the English names, but the people who cooked and served the meat used the Norman French names, since that was the language spoken by the nobles (who were eating the meat).
posted by nomis at 4:12 PM on December 4, 2005


pig -> ham, sausage
posted by Alison at 4:12 PM on December 4, 2005


head cheese = not cheese
posted by blue_beetle at 4:19 PM on December 4, 2005


Ham and sausage aren't quite the same as what they're going at.

You're talking about a specific cut or preparation method, while they're talking about the name of meat garnered from an animal type.

Ham is a subset of the pork family of meats... while sausage can be either pork, beef or a variety of different animals.
posted by mhuckaba at 4:22 PM on December 4, 2005


human -> long pig
posted by Acetylene at 4:24 PM on December 4, 2005


I guess contrarily to what I just posted, I have heard pigs referred to as hams...
posted by mhuckaba at 4:24 PM on December 4, 2005


Does it count when the name describes a certain cut of that animal though, as in ham or bacon, or even processed further, like sausage? And why don't we commonly refer to the parts of the cow as often? (I'm guessing because cuts of a cow are a lot more complicated/numerous...). So if you really wanted more ideas, you could get into shank, brisket, flank, loin... =

I've pondered this before. I hope nomis is right, because that is sure would be interesting to share w/ people.
posted by artifarce at 4:25 PM on December 4, 2005


'ham' comes from French too: jambon (related to jambe 'leg'), which was reinterpreted in English as 'ham-bone'
posted by nomis at 4:27 PM on December 4, 2005


I must confess to be unsatisfied with the "its an accident of etymology" explanation. That may indeed be the provenance but not the cause. In other languages there is also a separation between the meat and the animal and there is no Norman/Anglo-Saxon explanation to fall back on.

In spanish for example, beef/cow is rez/vaca. Likewise even chicken is distinguished as gallina/pollo.

So I guess what I'm saying is that these explanations dont explain the potential psychological reason for the divisions.
posted by vacapinta at 4:32 PM on December 4, 2005


artifarce, I sure hope I'm right too.

I think the parts of cow you refer to are not so much alternative names for the meat, as they are more specific names. For example, 'shank' is simply an old term for 'leg' (remember the English king Edward Longshanks in Braveheart?)
posted by nomis at 4:33 PM on December 4, 2005


That's a good point vacapinta, I wonder about all those terms in Spanish. Still, if you wanted to give a psychological explanation you'd also have to explain why so many other languages make no distinctions. In fact, other than Spanish and English, I don't know of any language that commonly uses separate terms.

Incidentally, do you know the etymology of such words as rez, lomo etc?
posted by nomis at 4:37 PM on December 4, 2005


I was wondering this while looking at a can of beef soup -- thinking to myself "I think I'll have some cow soup ...".

I do wonder about the Spanish etymology too -- carne/rez vs vaca.
posted by 5MeoCMP at 4:39 PM on December 4, 2005


I wouldn't call lamb a euphemism. A lamb is a cute baby sheep. It's like calling rabbit meat "bunny" or something.
posted by leapingsheep at 4:40 PM on December 4, 2005


Note also that we have a special word 'meat' rather than just saying 'flesh' or 'muscle' or something.
posted by chrismear at 4:40 PM on December 4, 2005


The difference in the Spanish words vaca and carne go all the way back to Latin:

carn- => carne
bovis => bos => ??? => vaca

Intersetingly, the French (and thus the English) word for beef (and not cow) came from bos. From the American Heritage Dictionary: "Middle English, from Old French buef, from Latin bs, bov-".

Fun fact: the word carnival came from the Latin word for meat/flesh.
posted by Alison at 4:58 PM on December 4, 2005


French, Spanish and English are certainly not the only languages to use distinct words for the animal and the meat from that animal.

For example, Japanese uses "ushi" 牛 for cow and "gyuuniku" 牛肉 for meat from a cow. The pronunciations are decidedly different, however the same kanji for cow is incorporated in both (just read differently).
posted by dead_ at 5:04 PM on December 4, 2005


Likewise even chicken is distinguished as gallina/pollo.

Really? I swear I've seen both of those in titles of dishes.
posted by chrismear at 5:07 PM on December 4, 2005


dead_: 'niku' is the Japanese word for 'meat', right? So it's a case of the same kanji having two different readings depending on whether or not it's combined with another character. As I understand it, this is the situation with many Japanese words, not just ones referring to animals and their meat.

chrismear: yeah, there is some crossover. Chicken meat is usually pollo, but chicken soup is caldo de gallina.
posted by nomis at 5:17 PM on December 4, 2005


Alison:

spanish: vaca
french: vache

Female for cow. Haven't found how it goes back to latin yet thoguh...
posted by furtive at 5:26 PM on December 4, 2005


Lamb:shank
Pig:ham
Chicken:drumstick?
posted by dash_slot- at 5:34 PM on December 4, 2005


So I guess what I'm saying is that these explanations dont explain the potential psychological reason for the divisions.

Doesn't need to be psychological. Seems to me that it's worthwhile to distinguish between a whole live animal and a part of a dead animal. Or a part of a live, very sad animal, I suppose. Pig like that you don't eat all at once.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 5:38 PM on December 4, 2005


deer - > venison
posted by jessamyn at 5:38 PM on December 4, 2005


PS:
all cows are female, bulls are male, and cattle may be male or female.
posted by dash_slot- at 5:39 PM on December 4, 2005


Is there a singular for "cattle"?
posted by casarkos at 5:45 PM on December 4, 2005


jessamyn: venison apparently comes from Old French venesoun, which comes from the Latin for 'hunting'.

furtive: I hope you can find something on that etymology. The best I could find claims that vacca is the original Latin for 'cow', and bos was a dialectal word for 'ox'.
posted by nomis at 5:47 PM on December 4, 2005


casarkos: a "cattle beast" is the usual singular form.
posted by nomis at 5:49 PM on December 4, 2005


Sorry, I used the wrong Latin word 'vacca' is the Latin feminine of cow and 'bos' is the masculine (as far as I know, I am not a Latin expert). The reason I made the mistake is that the Spanish the 'v' sound is not a labiodental fricative, but more of a bilabial plosive similar to the English 'b'.
posted by Alison at 6:11 PM on December 4, 2005


Alison, I think the Latin for 'bull' is taurus.
posted by nomis at 6:51 PM on December 4, 2005


So, I'm learning lots about Latin today.

The Latin 'bos' is 'ox', but it seems like it can be translated as 'cow' or 'bull'.

However, taurus does mean 'bull'.
posted by Alison at 7:11 PM on December 4, 2005


Chevon > goat
(OK, you don't see that so much in the U.S., but that's the term)

And leapingsheep, "lamb" that you buy at the grocer's is not likely to be from a baby sheep; more likely it's from a sheep that's close to a year old. And the cute has mostly worn off by then.
posted by bricoleur at 7:23 PM on December 4, 2005


A couple of thoughts.

1. There are modern words (chevron=goat, cervena=farmed deer etc) that are essentially marketing terms, along the lines of calling offal "variety meats".

2. In English, you're seeing the interaction of TWO historical things. First, there's the Saxon-French interaction already discussed. But there's also a change in the meaning of words. Words often change over time to become more specialised or less specialised than their original meaning. Here, we're seeing increased specialisation.

"Meat" used to mean any foodstuff. You can still see this usage in fossil form in the word "sweetmeat". If someone in Chaucer says they had no meat for days, they mean they had nothing to eat, not that they had turned vegetarian

What we now call meat was "flesh". You can see this in the phrase "neither fish, flesh nor fowl". And bingo - my guess is that those three traditional categories explain why chicken and duck (and goose and pheasant and ...) don't get their own Norman French term - because they're all fowl, not flesh. Or at least they lived in a different mental category.

Also, for chicken at least, culinary usage in older English would distinguish capons (French origin, castrated males selected and fattened for meat) from cocks (entire males) and hens, both terms with a Saxon or Norse origin. Goose, swan, duck and hen are all Anglosaxon or Norse in origin. So only the swanky birds raised especially for the table got a Norman term.

Back to flesh. German has always used animal+Fleisch to refer to different kinds of meat (Fleisch), eg Rindfleisch = beef, and I think that was the Anglosaxon usage also (no reference materials to hand here while I'm writing.

Anyway, there are modern marketing innovations which are clearly motivated by branding considerations or to remove your mental connection to the original animal; and then there are the historical explanations, which frankly aren't really explanatory. We know what old usage was, we know how it changed, but we can't really say WHY without a substantial amount of guesswork, although there are often patterns in the way words' meanings change over time.

Disclaimer: not a linguist, just an interested amateur with a couple of undergrad linguistics papers under his belt.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 8:06 PM on December 4, 2005


Language-in-the-making sidenote: (the unfortunately named) Food Companion International magazine and the Kangaroo Industry Assoc. of Australia recently sponsored a competition to come up with a less squirm-inducing name for 'roo meat (Kangarufleisch to i_am_joe's_spleen). Among the entries that have been suggested are marsu, angaroo, Skippy and roadkill. Winner to be announced in the magazine's next issue.
posted by rob511 at 8:30 PM on December 4, 2005 [1 favorite]


Fun fact: the word carnival came from the Latin word for meat/flesh.

More specifically, the carni-val is meat going away, during Lent.

Supposedly vache & boeuf are both derived from the same Indo-European root (something like "var").

On the Norman/Anglo-Saxon thing: my favorite example is butcher vs. baker, which sound so parallel in English, coming `from' boucherie and bakerei. (Again, who's eating the flesh, who's eating the bread.)
posted by Aknaton at 8:35 PM on December 4, 2005


Farm raised deer are called cervena on New Zealand menus.

I've never heard of bulls or oxen being called Bossy, just cows.

There was something in the Guardian about a week and a half ago about mutton.
posted by brujita at 9:39 PM on December 4, 2005


Farm raised deer are called cervena on New Zealand menus

Fancy that. Is that a copyrighted term, like 'zespri' for kiwifruit? I don't recall ever seeing it, but then I always go for the lamb...

Anyway, I'm not so sure that this kind of term is euphemistic, as i_am_joe's_spleen suggests. Otherwise, why replace 'venison', which is already at one remove from 'deer', but retain 'lamb'?
posted by nomis at 10:17 PM on December 4, 2005


Wow, so many great answers and some great discussion too. Thanks, everyone!
posted by 5MeoCMP at 10:38 PM on December 4, 2005


Another recent marketing example is kid (young goat) is called capretto these days, because it's only marginally acceptable to eat 'kid'.

Psychological reasons and marketing desires are a very recent invention. Nobody was previously squeamish about killing and butchering an animal, everyone was much closer to their food source.

If horse ever because culturally OK outside France, I wonder how they would spin the name...
posted by wilful at 10:46 PM on December 4, 2005


I wouldn't call lamb a euphemism. A lamb is a cute baby sheep. It's like calling rabbit meat "bunny" or something.

But Lisa, this is lamb! Not a lamb!

I do actually refer to rabbit stew as "bunny stew". And my partner calls our favourite kangaroo casserole "Skippy the Bush Kanga-Stew". I don't know why they want a special culinary name for kangaroo; it won't stick unless it's spontaneous.
posted by andraste at 11:18 PM on December 4, 2005


Horse is acceptable outside France. It is a common source for cold cuts in Belgium. It's good enough, but nothing to get excited about. It was also commonly eaten in the US, in days past.
posted by Goofyy at 2:12 AM on December 5, 2005


Thought I'd pipe up and add Farsi to the list of languages that don't make a distinction:

gaav (cow)-->goosht-e gaav (cow meat)
goosefand (sheep)-->goosht-e goosefand
morgh (chicken)-->morgh (the "meat" part is usually not necessary, although it can be added)
ordak (duck)-->ordak
maahi (fish)-->maahi

The one exception is khook (pig), which is traditionally not eaten in Iran, although prior to the revolution delicatessens did sell ham sandwiches which were referred to as jambon (obviously French).
posted by Devils Slide at 3:22 AM on December 5, 2005


maygoo (shrimp) -->maygoo
kharchang (crab, literally "donkey claw")-->kharchang (not eaten in Iran)
khargoosh (rabbit, literally "donkey ears") -->khargoosh
posted by Devils Slide at 3:35 AM on December 5, 2005


ears ear
posted by Devils Slide at 3:37 AM on December 5, 2005


In Chile:

pollo -> ave (literaly: bird)
posted by signal at 4:25 AM on December 5, 2005


Nobody was previously squeamish about killing and butchering an animal, everyone was much closer to their food source.

Here in the Falklands we have an isolated farming community where, until a generation ago, a large proportion of the population had their own killing house and killed their own meat: here the live animals as well as the food are always referred to as "beef".

(as in:
"What d'you do today, che?"
"Went out and killed a beef.")

Strange in a way that it's not the other way round ("He served me up a plate of cow").

Also strange that sheep, which are far more common, tend to be referred to with regular English terms, although live sheep are often called by more technical names according to their age/sex/castration/shearing status etc, just because they're often the topic of technical conversations. (ewe, wether, hogget, ram, clippy, etc.).

Mutton is consumed far more regularly than in the UK, with lamb available only at certain times of year (although the cut off point here between lamb and mutton is slightly different).

(Direct link to the Guardian mutton story here)
posted by penguin pie at 7:24 AM on December 5, 2005 [1 favorite]


This is an odd question, but interesting reading the comments.

I rather enjoy mixing the names up, myself. Back in my undergrad days, I once cooked a couple of pot pies (one beef, one chicken) and labeled them by cutting the top with a B and a C.

When they came out of the oven, my wife wanted the chicken one - so she naturally grabbed the one with the B on it, knowing full well that my strange sense of humor meant B for Bird and C for Cow.

I imagine the euphemism is a big part of the naming, but I also suggest that common usage would have a large influence. Might also imply wild vs. domestic, or "raised for the meat" vs. "raised for some other part" (ie, milk, fur, wool, etc.). I mean, we still distingush beef cattle from dairy cattle, right?

(Rabbit / hare --> coney? Haven't seen that one mentioned yet, although don't know how many folks still refer to a rabbit as a coney...)
posted by caution live frogs at 9:59 AM on December 5, 2005


Yeah, but coney is just an old word for rabbit, not a term for its meat.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 10:47 AM on December 5, 2005


Interesting thread so far, how about some more euphemistic words for organs/offal?

Sweetbreads = Pancreas or Thymus glands
Boudin Noir = Blood Sausage
Foie Gras = liver from force-fed duck/goose

I'm sure there are many others I'm forgetting. This speaks further of the psychological implications in that while we eat, say, "leg of lamb" or "chicken breasts," when the parts get more strange the words become less descriptive.

Tangentially related: my new favorite "cute" word for animal parts is "lollipops" to refer to chops or meat with a long thin bone or two sticking out, e.g., Lamb Lollipops, Veal Lollipops, Buffalo Chicken Wing Lollipops, etc.
posted by rorycberger at 6:19 PM on December 5, 2005


One more:

Giblets = that whole bag of stuff inside a bird
posted by rorycberger at 6:20 PM on December 5, 2005


I don't think so, nomis (I'm having trouble pasting quotes into the comment box--control+c and control+v aren't working with Firefox). I didn't see any copyright symbols.
posted by brujita at 8:06 AM on December 6, 2005




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