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Many online sources make the claim that the strange quirk in the English language of having French-derived terms (pork, beef, veal, mutton) for the meat of the animal, and having German-derived terms (pig/swine, cow, calf, sheep) for the animal themselves is due to the Norman conquest.

The claim follows that since the French were the aristocrats and the English were the workers, the aristocratic French word was used to refer to the meat and the working-class English word was used to refer to the animal.

For example, the claim is made by this article:

So, what does all this have to do with cows and pigs? Well, seems that the Anglo’s were made to tend to the livestock for the new Norman gentry. To them, a cow was a cow and a pig was a pig. When their was a big dinner or lavish affair going on, the Anglo serfs were made to tend to the livestock and then deliver it to the kitchens where the Norman cooks and chefs took over planning and serving the meal.

During the reign of William the Conqueror, traditions and language became somewhat mixed as English began to evolve further. For the Norman chefs, the word for cow was pronounced “beuf” which ended up becoming “beef” and pig was generally pronounced as “pauk” which evolved into the present “pork”.

However, this claim is unsourced, and this The Straight Dope article claims that there is no proof that this theory is correct.

  • There are always exceptions: In English lamb is both the live animal and the meat, rather than something like agneau or agnel which would have come from French. – Henry Jun 2 '16 at 7:29
  • There are weirder examples like swan (Germanic) and cygnet (from Latin cygnus via French cigne). Hard to explain that from Norman aristos. There might be a grain of truth in the theory (military terms do often seem to be Norman) but it's too simplistic. – TheMathemagician Jun 2 '16 at 8:58
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    I'm glad someone has asked this. I've heard it a couple of times but hadn't come across anyone skeptically analysing it. – Andrew Grimm Jun 2 '16 at 10:29
  • Seems to only apply to a few large mammals- pig/pork, cow/beef, deer/venison, sheep/mutton. off the top of my head, i came up with these exceptions where the animal name is also the food name- chicken, duck, goose, turkey, frog, any type of fish, eel, oyster, crab, lobster, goat, bison/buffalo, rabbit – Kip Jun 8 '16 at 19:44
  • @Henry, but note that we also have "sheep" (animal, not meat; Germanic) and "mutton" (meat, not animal; French). – Gareth McCaughan Jun 27 '16 at 13:21
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this The Straight Dope article claims that there is no proof that this theory is correct.

That's not what it actually says:

This is a plausible argument. But proven? No.

Note that it goes on to establish that the words beef, veal, mutton, and pork all derive from French words while cow, calf, sheep, and pig are all native to Middle English. It also notes that French, German, and Spanish (with the exception of carne) lack a meat/animal distinction. That is proof, so it's not true to say that there is no proof. There is simply insufficient proof to make that claim absolutely. But you can say that about pretty much any historical linguistic claim.

Note that that article cites Bill Bryson of The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way as supportive while noting that Robert Burchfield of The English Language called the distinction "an enduring myth". But that essentially claims that beef, veal, mutton, and pork are perfectly valid names for live animals. Which is not how any of us modernly learned it.

This discussion blames Sir Walter Scott's Ivanhoe:

This different usages are noted by Sir Walter Scott in the early pages of 'Ivanhoe' and he mentions the fact that the Saxon words relate to the work and the French to the consumption. I think we can lay the blame for this myth at his door, since his historical novels were required reading for earlier generations.

And there's also the point that the people that Burchfield cites as using the French words were relatively affluent and educated people. So Sir Walter Scott may have been correct that in the common speech (i.e. that of the majority of the people), the French words were used only in regards to the meat. At the same time, Burchfield could have been correct that this didn't spread to literature prior to Scott's use in the 18th century.

  • Note : There are some (rare) distinctions between animal and meat in French. For example cochon (pig) and porc (pork). – Babika Babaka Jun 2 '16 at 7:06
  • @SeriousSarah perhaps also worth noting that in the UK we differentiate between types of meat (separate from the cut of meat), not just the meat and the animal - for example, pig can provide both pork and ham, while sheep can provide mutton and lamb. – Moo Jun 2 '16 at 15:17
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    @Moo So is ham not considered pork in english? Just curious, I'm not fluent yet and in French we would say that jambon (ham) is porc (pork). But for sheeps there is generally no difference between animal and meat, we call both the adult animal and its meat mouton (sheep/mutton), and the young and its meat agneau (?/lamb). The words used to differenciate between males (bélier) and females (brebis) are generally not used for their meat. – Babika Babaka Jun 2 '16 at 15:29
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    The "enduring myth" would not be the languages of origin, or the modern meaning of the words, but the idea that this arose from a situation where French aristocrats were the main people who ate meat (or French cooks where the main people preparing it) and English speakers were the main people raising the animals. – sumelic Jun 2 '16 at 15:36
  • @SeriousSarah you wouldn't ever refer to a ham joint as pork, no (although you would be correct in saying "ham is a type of pork", and you would find ham and pork in the same section in the meat aisle). It is meat from a pig, however, but we would never refer to it as "pork" - you would be having "ham hock" or "pork sausages" (and lets not mention "gammon" :D ). We wouldn't refer to the meat from a sheep as "sheep", but rather "mutton" or "lamb" (as you do to identify the type of meat). – Moo Jun 2 '16 at 16:01

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