Class and English meat vocabulary

It’s fairly common in writings on food, agriculture, animal rights, etc., to come across an argument that goes something like this: we call food animals by one name in the field (cows, pigs, etc.) and another on the dinner table (beef, pork, etc.) because we’re uncomfortable with being reminded of the fact that the food on our plate was once part of a living animal. It’s a distancing technique, one that removes us from the blood and death inherent in eating meat—one that makes us feel less guilty about serving up Bessie or Babe for a meal.

It’s an argument that makes a fair amount of emotional sense—but, as it happens, it’s not actually true. In his rather cantankerous history of the cultural status of animals, Brute Souls, Happy Beats, and Evolution, scholar Rod Preece points to a passage of dialogue in Sir Walter Scott’s novel Ivanhoe to offer a convincing counterargument:

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.

When the Normans ruled over England, French was the language of the nobility, and English was spoken by the Saxon serfs in the fields. So, it’s little surprise, then, that the English language has retained Saxon words for describing farm animals, but has also adopted French terms for meat. Paraphrasing William Godwin, Preece puts it like this:

The Anglo-Saxon words “cow,” “sheep,” and “pig” survived among peasants who tended the animals, while the animals as food became “veil,” “mutton,” and “pork” after the Norman lords who ate them.

Now, it might still be true that we actually do feel more comfortable eating pig and calling it pork—but this isn’t the etymological reason, at least, that we do so.

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