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.


1 Response to “Class and English meat vocabulary”

  1. 1 January 22, 2014 at 12:35 AM

    This is the right web site for anyone who wants to find out about this topic.
    You realize a whole lot its almost tough to argue with you (not that I actually will
    need to…HaHa). You definitely put a brand new
    spin on a topic that’s been discussed for many years.
    Great stuff, just great!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

Recent Publications

Review of J.M. Coetzee and Ethics: Philosophical Perspectives on Literature, edited by Anton Leist and Peter Singer. The Quarterly Conversation, September 2010.

Review of Union Atlantic by Adam Haslett. The Region, June 2010.

Review of The Man in the Wooden Hat and Old Filth by Jane Gardam. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 19, Spring 2010.

Review of 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About by Joshua Clover. ForeWord, November/December 2009.

Review of The Humbling by Philip Roth. Identity Theory, November 25, 2009.

Review of Imperial by William T. Vollmann. PopMatters, September 18, 2009.

Review of Wonderful World by Javier Calvo. The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 17, September 7, 2009.

Review of Of Song and Water by Joseph Coulson. Identity Theory, August 3, 2009.

Review of Digging: The Afro-American Soul of American Classical Music by Amiri Baraka. ForeWord, July/August 2009.

Review of Death in Spring by Mercè Rodoreda. Rain Taxi, Summer 2009 (#54). Viewable online via Powell's Books

September 2008
« Aug   Oct »

%d bloggers like this: