or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

The Meat of the Matter

As I wrote the other night, we'd been watching a show on the history of the English language, the first part of an eight-part series called "The Adventure of English, 500 AD to 2000". It's utterly fascinating--thrilling, even--though if you read the show's critics you'll discover that the show's presenter doesn't necessarily have all his facts straight. (One of the perils of being an amateur, that.) One of his crimes, evidently, is that he believes the folk etymology of the word "tip", though it is definitely not an acronym for "To Insure Promptness". (The OED suspects that it's a rogues' cant word literally meaning "to touch", in the sense of passing something along; but, as is usually the case with cant, it was simply invented to confuse outsiders and so is not likely to have a clear etymology.)

The second episode of the show was about the Norman invasion of England and how it drove English underground, the third and least among the languages spoken in England, the first two being French and Latin. This, of course, is the source of the enormous influx of French words into English, and the show finally explained something that many people notice but not as many--including me, until last night--know the root of.

The words for the various sorts of meat in English are not at all the same as the names of the animals from which they come. Beef is from cows; mutton from sheep; venison from deer; poultry from chicken; veal from calves; pork from pigs. Some people decide--I've heard this explanation myself--that this stems from delicacy, that we don't like to think of a dead cow when we're eating beef. But the truth is much more interesting.

After the Norman invasion, the English were more likely to be in the serving class and the French to be the middle and upper classes. As servants, the English were the ones raising and slaughtering the animals, and so naturally they would use their own words for these animals. The French, on the other hand, were the ones cooking and consuming these meats, and so they would just as naturally use their words for the meat. Because the two classes perforce had some interaction, the words would have filtered back and forth to an extent; but because French was the dominant language, their words lodged in English and stayed there, along with so many thousands of others.


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