One of the things that was raised during the MOOC was scientists’ usage of euphemistic language (and also, my dislike of provocative language when I’m trying to promote animal welfare). It’s a topic I’ve been interested in for a while too.
I was browsing reddit over the weekend and came across this interesting factoid:
On a farm you see a cow, chicken, deer, sheep, etc. In a store you find beef, poultry, venison, mutton, etc.
It’s a divide between Germanic and French words in English.
…The english speakers were the ones who raised the animals, and the normans (french speakers) were the ones who ate the meat.
I, like a lot of animal welfare people, had just generally assumed this language divide came from a sort of prissiness about naming the foods we eat. I had an idea of a 1950s housewife getting marketed to, Man Men style. In reality, I know this is silly. I have a Mrs Beeton cookbook (one of my favourite vintage books I own) that talks about poultry, mutton, beef, etc., and I have an assumption that these words were used in medieval times (based mainly on Karen Maitland and George RR Martin books). And if I think about it in more detail, I realise that my vague idea about housewives is nonsense. Another of my favourite books, Nella Last’s War, shows me that our lack of connection with our food is far more recent than the 40s or 50s.
This is a very good example of how I will start researching a problem. I start with “What do I know, and where do I know it from?”
The next question on the list is “is this the case?” and so I turned to google to explore the initial hypoethesis.
Google: etymology “pig” = old English (picbred which apparently meant acorn), middle English (pig)
Google: etymology “pork” = latin (porcus), old French (porc), middle English (pork)
Google: etymology “chicken” = Germanic, old English (cycen), English (chicken)
Google: etymology “poultry” = Old French (poulet, pouletrie), English (poultry)
So far, so interesting. There does appear to be a divide where the old French and German words are used for food, while the old English words are used for the producing. While this appeals to my inner class warrior, who is never too far from the surface, I am also aware that English is a language that “pursues other languages down dark alleys to beat them unconscious and riffle through their pockets for spare vocabulary“. I’m also vividly aware that there are some very strange quirks in the way we name and identify animals. Did you know that cattle are the only species that do not have a non gendered singular noun? In English you can’t refer to a single member of the species Bos without implying something about gender or function (cow vs bull, ox vs steer). I wrote a 60000 word thesis on the personality of beef steers and dairy cows, I am deeply aware of how awkward this little linguistic quirk can make life.
The point is that my google exercise breaks down here. We call it beef (old French) and veal (anglo Norman French) when it’s a steer (Germanic through to Old English) or a calf (Germanic through to old English), its oxtail when it’s ox (Germanic through to Old English) and milk (Germanic to Old English) when it’s a cow (Germanic to Old English).
Assuming that Google is pretty good at etymology, and at the very least I can confidently say it knows more about etymology than I do, I am reasonably confident that at least for some foods in the English language, the division of animal and food may be down to class. Now this is far from a theory, that is to say something that we would widely accept to be true, but it’s a pretty solid hypothesis.
And it’s certainly made me think differently about my old assumption. It’s a nice hypothesis, I like it, and I think it’s interesting that from an animal welfare point of view, we’ve all moved to the landed gentry – and we use the posh language, the language that provides a line of demarcation, between us and the fields.