Thank the French for naming your food

Different meats go by many different names. You have beef, pork, veal, chicken, turkey, lamb, and others. Of course beef is really cow meat, pork is pig, veal is baby cows, chicken is chicken, turkey is turkey… wait a second. Where is the fancy word for chicken or turkey? Why is lamb meat just called lamb? What makes beef and pork so special that they get their own names?

It would sound really strange to say “I’m making roast cow for dinner tonight” or “These pig chops are delicious,” but having a turkey leg or chicken breast makes sense. How else would you even say it? The only other word you might use is “poultry” — an unspecific word that could mean just about any bird.

Birds aren’t the only ones without a special term, however. Lamb is just lamb, unless it’s a sheep, then it’s mutton. If you’re eating goat, you’re eating goat, but if you’re eating deer then you’re eating venison. What is going on here?

You can thank the French for bestowing these fancy names upon certain creatures.

A scene from the Bayeux Tapestry depicting the Norman invasion

The Norman invasion of England had a significant effect on the English language. Long ago and far away, in the 10th century, the upper-class people who were eating the meat of cows and pigs had little association with the animals themselves. People of lower classes hunted animals and prepared the meat, which magically appeared on the tables of the wealthier class. The fancy, rich Normans weren’t eating cows and pigs, they were eating what they called “boeuf” and “porc.” When the Normans conquered England in 1066, they brought their own language and special terminology along with them. Suddenly, the upper class people of England were also referring to their fine meals as “boeuf” and “porc.” As Norman influence spread across Western Europe, many of the new French words introduced by the Normans began to win out over the old ways, and the unique culinary terms of the Norman upper class prevailed.

Slowly, these words entered the popular lexicon and began to evolve, as language does. Soon, “boeuf” and “porc” became anglicized as “beef” and “pork” instead. The French word for sheep, “mouton” followed a similar route into the Anglophone world, as did the French word for calf, “veau.” Other words like turkey or chicken didn’t morph in quite the same manner. Because English has evolved in such an unusual way and English speakers have borrowed words from so many other languages, we ended up with the Germanic-derived word “chicken.” No one seems too certain about the origin of the word “turkey” but it probably stemmed from some confusion about their import into England by merchants from the Ottoman Empire.

The next time you enjoy beef wellington or pork tacos, you can thank William the Conqueror!