Ever wonder why we call pig meat “pork,” cow meat “beef,” sheep meat “mutton,” and deer meat “venison”? It gets even weirder when chicken meat stays “chicken” and fish remains “fish.”
The answer lies in a somewhat complex lesson in word origins, but let’s break it down in the simplest way possible.
Why pig meat is called pork?
The reason why pig meat is called “pork” in English has historical and linguistic roots. After the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, there was a significant influence of French on the English language. During this period, French-speaking Normans ruled over an English-speaking population.
In medieval England, the English-speaking peasants and farmers were responsible for raising and tending to animals, such as pigs, while the Norman nobility, who spoke French, were the ones who typically consumed the meat. As a result, when it came to naming the meat, the English-speaking peasants used the Old English word “swine” for the live animal, but the French-derived term “porc” for the meat.
Over time, this linguistic distinction between the animal and its meat persisted, and the English language adopted “pork” to refer specifically to the meat of a pig.
Why cow meat is called beef?
The term “beef” for cow meat also has historical and linguistic origins similar to the case of “pork” for pig meat. In medieval England, as mentioned earlier, the Norman nobility spoke French, and the English-speaking peasants were responsible for raising and tending to the animals. The live animals were referred to by the Old English names like “cow” for cattle.
When it came to the consumption of meat, however, the Norman nobility, who were the primary consumers, used the French-derived term “boeuf” for the meat of a cow. This linguistic distinction between the live animal and its meat persisted, and English adopted “beef” to specifically refer to the meat of a cow.
Similarly, this linguistic pattern is evident in other instances, such as “veal” for the meat of a young calf (derived from the Old French word “veal”). These linguistic nuances reflect the historical interactions and influences between different cultures and languages in medieval England.
Why deer meat is called venison?
The term “venison” for deer meat also traces its origins back to the historical and linguistic interplay between the English and the Normans in medieval times. In this case, the Norman nobility, who spoke French, were again the primary consumers of the meat, while the English-speaking peasants were responsible for raising and tending to the animals.
When referring to the live animal, the Old English term “deor” was used for deer. However, when it came to the consumption of deer meat, the Norman nobility employed the Old French term “venison” to describe it. This linguistic practice of using distinct terms for the live animal and its meat was consistent across various animals and meats during this period.
The term “venison” in French is referred to as “cerf,” which doesn’t sound like “venison.” But “venison” actually comes from the Latin word “venor,” meaning “to hunt or pursue.” After the Norman Invasion and the creation of the Royal Forests, any hunted animal was called “venison” once it was killed. Since deer were hunted more than any other animal, the name became associated with deer meat and stuck over time.
The use of “venison” for deer meat in English thus reflects the influence of the Norman-French language and culture on the English language during the medieval era. Over time, these linguistic distinctions became ingrained, and “venison” became the accepted term for deer meat in English. Today, it serves as a reminder of the historical interactions and influences that have shaped the English language and culinary traditions.
But why fish meat is still called fish, and chicken is still called chicken?
The naming conventions for certain meats like fish and chicken differ from those of pork, beef, and venison. In the case of fish, the term “fish” is used for both the live animal and its meat. This naming consistency may be attributed to the longstanding usage of the word “fish” in Old English to describe both the creature in the water and its edible flesh.
Similarly, with chicken, the term is commonly used for both the live bird and its meat. The word “chicken” has been used in English to refer to the domesticated fowl and its meat for an extended period, and there hasn’t been a historical linguistic shift similar to the Norman influence on terms like pork, beef, and venison.
Surprisingly, though chicken has nothing to do with Norman’s influence, it was once involved in this language shift too. The French word for chicken, “poulet,” transformed into “pullet.” However, as time passed, “pullet” ended up referring specifically to young hens, not all chickens.
The notion didn’t apply to fish, possibly because the French word for fish, “poisson,” sounds a bit too similar to the English word “poison.”
So, where do the words poultry and pullet come from?
The terms “poultry” and “pullet” have distinct origins and refer to specific aspects of domesticated fowl.
- Origin: The word “poultry” comes from the Middle English word “pultrie,” which itself is derived from the Old French word “pouletrie,” meaning “domestic fowl” or “poultry.”
- Meaning: “Poultry” is a general term that encompasses domesticated birds raised for their meat, eggs, or feathers. It includes birds such as chickens, ducks, turkeys, and geese.
- Origin: The term “pullet” comes from the Middle English word “pulet,” which means a young hen or a young female chicken. It is related to the Old French word “poulette,” meaning “young hen.”
- Meaning: A “pullet” specifically refers to a young female chicken that has not yet reached maturity. Once a pullet matures and starts laying eggs, it is typically referred to simply as a “hen.”
These terms are part of the broader vocabulary used in the context of poultry farming and are specific to different stages or aspects of domesticated fowl.
The linguistic relics of the Norman Invasion have left an indelible mark on the English language, providing a captivating window into an era where distinctions between the producers and consumers shaped the very words we use in our kitchens today. From “pork” to “beef” and “venison,” these culinary appellations are not just labels; they serve as reflections of the intricate dance between cultures and languages that has flavoured our linguistic landscape for centuries.
In the contemporary context of diet plans and protein consumption, understanding the historical roots of these culinary terms adds a layer of richness to our appreciation for the foods we include in our daily meals. As we navigate the diverse world of protein sources, the echoes of medieval influences remind us that even the words we use to describe our diets have deep historical ties.