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In English we have:

  • "beef" for "cow", "cattle"
  • "veal" for "calf"
  • "pork" for "pig"
  • "mutton" for "sheep"

I'm not aware of this separation for "fish", "goat" or "chicken" (Spanish has "pollo" and "gallina") and other poultry. Are these words used simply to distinguish the meat from the animal (i.e. to avoid saying "cow meat") or is there a psychological separation to avoid the association? I doubt the latter since these words developed when people were likely less squeamish than some are today.

Why are there not meat words for some animals?

What are some others I didn't list?

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Although I can’t think of any other such example, Spanish has pez for a fish in the sea and pescado for one on your plate. And yes, that’s originally a past participle of pescar, to fish. So the fish you eat has been fished. Different reason altogether compared with what happened in English, but it’s the only non-English example that springs quickly to mind. –  tchrist Feb 1 '12 at 23:56
    
Oh, and you forgot that English uses calamari/calamares for squid you eat and escargot for snails you eat. Weird. –  tchrist Feb 1 '12 at 23:57
    
@tchrist Technically calamari and squid are different things, both in the sea and on your plate. Some fishmongers will try and rip you off, though. –  user867 Oct 31 '12 at 6:49
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7 Answers 7

up vote 10 down vote accepted

I believe that many of these come from the use of French in England amongst the aristocracy after the Norman conquest. Thus 'pork' (porc) is the posh word, 'pig' is the vulgar peasant (or English) word. I don't have any reference for this, but I heard it somewhere in my travels. Correct me if I'm wrong, but it does sound like a convincing story.

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It sounds convincing, but it happens in other languages too. While it's alive, the French "boeuf" is a "vache." Pig is "chochon" until it's killed and becomes "porc." That said, a calf is "veau" whether it's been butchered or not and a sheep is "mouton" even when it's mutton. –  J.T. Grimes Aug 18 '10 at 2:09
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The usual story is that during the norman conquest, the poor farmers were too poor to eat meat, and the French rulers never saw the animals, which is why the words for the meat have French etymologies, and the words for the animals are Anglo-Saxon. Something like that might be true, but the true details probably aren't as tidy. –  JoFrhwld Aug 18 '10 at 3:38
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I believe Sir Walter Scott referenced this story in Ivanhoe, so it has been around since at least the early 19th century; but given Ivanhoe's overall level of historical accuracy, I wouldn't put much stock in it as a source. –  mmyers Aug 18 '10 at 4:03
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In French you can call a pig either "cochon" or "porc". The French-language show I watched as a child (Passe-Partout) has a song where they sing about pigs living in "la porcherie". One of the characters asks why they don't live in "une cochonnerie". –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 18 '10 at 16:01
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@RichardA, I would modify your answer (even though it is already accepted) to state that the edible words clearly do derive from French, and the live ones from ('old') English. I don't think there can be any doubt about that. What is in doubt is the posh/vulgar myth, which is disputed (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etymology, under English language) –  Benjol Sep 16 '10 at 5:20
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What are some others I didn't list?

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carabeef is for water buffalo –  Theta30 Feb 1 '12 at 14:14
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Soylent Green is people! –  slim Feb 1 '12 at 14:51
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A cow is made up of more than its meat so referring to the muscle with a different name to the entire animal isn't that hard to swallow. How the meat is prepared and even the age of the animal can give the meat a different name too. e.g. pork, bacon and ham or lamb and mutton.

Why some animals have this distinction and not others is something I'm unsure of. This is a bit of history surrounding the beef/cow words on Wikipedia: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Beef#Etymology

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I think this Wikipedia article pretty well answers the question:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Middle_English_creole_hypothesis

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Human meat has been called "long pig", so you could add

  • "long pig" for "human"

As for words for meat, how about "sweetbreads" or "tripe" for offal? These seem like euphemisms to me.

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For psychological reasons, the names of most meats are different from the animals they come from. The meat industry has always tried to disassociate the meat from the animal. For example, most meat eaters are fine with eating "beef," but if it were labeled "cow," they might think twice about eating it. Same with sheep, goats, pigs, and deer.

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The names predate the modern squeamishness by centuries, at least. –  Dennis Williamson Jun 11 '11 at 1:24
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And yet people are much happier to eat lamb than mutton; hence 'mutton dressed as lamb". –  Richard A Jul 26 '11 at 2:58
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  • beef for cattle
  • carabeef for buffalo
  • mutton for sheep
  • chevon for goat
  • vension for deer
  • veal for calf
  • game for rabbit
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No, rabbit is coney, not game. –  tchrist Sep 19 '12 at 15:15
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game may include rabbit, but also partridge, pheasant and other wildfowl, as well as venison; essentially, anything shot rather than slaughtered. –  TimLymington Sep 19 '12 at 17:26
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This answer can be improved by citing sources for the information. –  MετάEd Sep 19 '12 at 17:41
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protected by RegDwigнt Sep 19 '12 at 14:55

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