Ask Uncle John Anything

February 10, 2014

Any Questions ConceptUncle John knows pretty much everything—and for what he doesn’t know, he has a massive research library. So go ahead: in the comments below, ask Uncle John anything. (And if we answer your question sometime, we’ll send you a free book!)

Why do we have different words for live animals and the meat they produce?

Beef comes from cows. Pork comes from pigs. Mutton comes from sheep. Chicken comes from, uh, chicken. Okay, so that one doesn’t count, but it’s common practice in the English language to use one word to refer to a living animal, and a completely different word to refer to the meat that comes from those very same animals. Why the linguistic transformation when the animal heads to the slaughterhouse?

This English language quirk goes all the way back to the birth of “modern” England: the Norman Conquest of 1066. Duke William II of Normandy, later known as William the Conqueror, led troops from Normandy, Breton, and France to seize control of the British crown, to which he had a claim. Essentially French, these groups became the ruling class in England. The previous tenants of England, the Anglo-Saxons, were suddenly second-class and left to the most menial jobs, such as looking after farm animals.

The names we use for farm animals are derived from similar Anglo-Saxon words for those animals. But the peasant Anglo-Saxons didn’t get to eat much of those animals meat—the ruling Normans did. They had their own names for animals, because they spoke Norman, an ancestor of modern French. So, the Anglo-Saxon farmers who tended to the live animals called them by their Anglo-Saxon names, and the Normans, who didn’t farm them but ate them, continued to call them by their Norman words.