Words at Play

Pork comes from pigs, beef comes from cattle, and mutton comes from sheep.  Did you ever wonder why we use such words as pork, beef, and mutton instead of pigs, cattle and sheep to describe the meat we eat?  A few lines of dialogue from Sir Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe (1819) explain it well.

The action takes place in England after the Norman Conquest.  In the novel most of the noblemen are Normans (French) including King Richard the Lion-Hearted (who spoke little English, and spent most of his time in France rather than in England).  The Saxons (English) are terribly oppressed by the Normans, and are considered by the Normans to be uneducated, crude buffoons.  The Norman nobles speak French most of the time, and the Saxons speak English, so they even have trouble understanding one another.  In the novel two Saxon characters have a conversation about the fact that certain animals are called by their Saxon names until they are eaten, at which time they are referred to by their Norman names.  Here is the dialogue:

“Why, how call you those grunting brutes running about on their four legs?” demanded Wamba.

“Swine, fool, swine,” said the herd, “every fool knows that.”

“And swine is good Saxon,” said the Jester; “but how call you the sow when she is flayed, and drawn, and quartered, and hung up by the heels, like a traitor?”

“Pork,” answered the swine-herd.

“I am very glad every fool knows that too,” said Wamba, “and pork, I think, is good Norman-French; and so when the brute lives, and is in the charge of a Saxon slave, she goes by her Saxon name; but becomes a Norman, and is called pork, when she is carried to the Castle-hall to feast among the nobles; what dost thou think of this, friend Gurth, ha?”

“It is but too true doctrine, friend Wamba, however it got into thy fool’s pate.”

“Nay, I can tell you more,” said Wamba, in the same tone. “There is old Alderman Ox continues to hold his Saxon epithet, while he is under the charge of serfs and bondsmen such as thou, but becomes Beef, a fiery French gallant, when he arrives before the worshipful jaws that are destined to consume him. Mynheer Calf, too, becomes Monsieur de Veau [veal] in the like manner; he is Saxon when he requires tendance, and takes a Norman name when he becomes matter of enjoyment.”

To the above list you can add mutton (French for sheep), and venison (French for deer).  Also poultry and pullet are derived from poulet, the French word for chicken.

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