Some animals have different words for the animal and for the meat - cow/beef, pig/pork. Some animals just use the same word without any compound - fish, quail.

But some animals use compounds of the form [animal] meat, while others use [animal] flesh. I looked at the Wiktionary entry on flesh, and it didn't really explain when to use flesh rather than meat, and why it is the case.

We talk about "human flesh" not "human meat", and can use either "horse flesh" or "horse meat", and we use meat not flesh for kangaroos, dogs, whales or dolphins, all of whom tend to be "friends not food" to most English-speakers.

Is the difference that flesh used to be more common than it is nowadays, and human flesh and horse flesh entered English earlier than the other phrases? Wiktionary mentioned some uses of flesh as archaic.

(I'm aware that meat used to be used for all food, and that flesh can be used for the body of living animals, but I assume neither fact is relevant here.)

(A similar question was asked at What is the difference between "meat" and "flesh"? , but it was closed as general reference)

  • 1
    I think it is relevant. For me, "meat" is by default something that you eat (which is why I would not normally talk about "human meat"). It can also be used metaphorically in dehumanizing senses not directly related to food, like calling people "bags of meat" or something like that, but that's not very relevant. If someone is talking about kangaroo, dog, whale or dolphin "meat", I would understand this to refer to their use as food, regardless of how repugnant this use may be to many people.
    – herisson
    Oct 15, 2015 at 21:51
  • Also, when not modified or specified by any other term, "meat" is much more normal than "flesh" when referring to food. "I like to eat meat" is a normal thing to say, whereas "I like to eat flesh" sounds weird and creepy. Or "I have to go to the supermarket to buy some more meat." You can't use "flesh" in these contexts.
    – herisson
    Oct 15, 2015 at 21:54
  • Is your question more specific, though? It sounds like your original question was about the use of "meat" vs. "flesh" in compounds, after certain animal names. Do you want to know why people sometimes say "horse flesh" when talking about stuff that is eaten?
    – herisson
    Oct 15, 2015 at 22:06
  • I edited your title to make it more specific, in order to reduce the chances of it being closed. Just change it back if I'm mistaken about what you're asking here.
    – herisson
    Oct 15, 2015 at 22:14
  • Also, isn't there a difference in vitality between meat and flesh? A nag might be described as having "little meat on its bones", but a charging war horse is "a thousand pounds of horse flesh bearing down on you". I'm prepared to be entirely wrong on this Oct 16, 2015 at 19:52

3 Answers 3


"Meat" is "flesh" that one would consider eating.

We talk about "human flesh" not "human meat"

because we don't eat humans.

we use meat not flesh for kangaroos, dogs, whales or dolphins, all of whom tend to be "friends not food" to most English-speakers.

I'm not sure who "we" is but as a native English speaker, I would only use "meat" if the conversation included the concept of somebody eating it. If a fellow native speaker used the word, I would interpret that to mean s/he is invoking the concept that it could be eaten.
I would also use "flesh" for the relevant parts of a creature that is still alive, unless the intended meaning to be conveyed includes the concept of killing and eating it (e.g. a discussion about hunting).

Paired with "dish," the result in Google Ngram viewer is striking (pairing with "flesh" isn't even found).


I suspect the main reason why flesh is not commonly associated with animals' carcasses stems from a sense of aversion, and sanctity.

Consider the expression, flesh and blood, which is used in connection with our children, (‘She is my own flesh and blood’) our family, and our fellow beings. “We are only flesh and blood”, means we are only human, we are imperfect; but until very recently, Christians were taught that man was made in the image of God. This allowed them a greater status than the animals that roamed freely on land or in air. Our flesh deserved greater staus than that of mere beasts.

It was necessary to remind Christians that Man was unique; distinct from any land, sea or air creature.

All flesh is not the same flesh: but there is one kind of flesh of men, another flesh of beasts, another of fishes, and another of birds.
King James Bible: 1 Corinthians 15:39

Furthermore, Eve was made from the flesh of Adam:

And Adam said, This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.
King James Bible: Genesis 2:23

And when a couple married the expression one flesh was used to convey the intimate union between two human beings.

And they twain shall be one flesh: so then they are no more twain, but one flesh.
KJB: Mark 10:8

In the New Testament, The King James Version contains the above mentioned idiom

And Jesus answered and said unto him, Blessed art thou, Simon Barjona: for flesh and blood hath not revealed it unto thee, but my Father which is in heaven.

In Jeremiah 19:9 the following horrific revelation was made

And I will cause them to eat the flesh of their sons and the flesh of their daughters, and they shall eat every one the flesh of his friend in the siege and straitness, wherewith their enemies, and they that seek their lives, shall straiten them.

The horror is all the more heightened because to eat the flesh of a dead human child is not comparable to the meat of a dead cow, sheep, or pig.

The distinction between flesh and meat has been instilled in us for over six hundred years. If we look at the etymology of ‘meat’ we find

Old English mete "food, item of food" (paired with drink), from Proto-Germanic *mati (cognates: Old Frisian mete, Old Saxon meti, Old Norse matr, Old High German maz, Gothic mats "food," Middle Dutch, Dutch metworst, German Mettwurst "type of sausage"), from PIE mad-i-, from root *mad- "moist, wet," also with reference to food qualities, (cognates: Sanskrit medas- "fat" (n.), Old Irish mat "pig;").
Narrower sense of "flesh used as food" is first attested c. 1300; similar sense evolution in French viande "meat," originally "food." In Middle English, vegetables still could be called grene-mete (15c.) […]

Colin Fine in the comments asks:

But three hundred years ago, there wasn't a word in English which meant what meat means now: the only word for "animal's flesh for eating" was "flesh", So how can you claim that the distinction between meat and flesh goes back two thousand years?

I admit, I didn't know the term flesh was older than meat; the former is before 900 while meat meaning ‘flesh that we eat’ is from 1300; and that meaning is older than three hundred years.

It is safe to say that by Early modern English, the distinction had been established. The above quotations are from the King James Bible, first printed in 1611-1612, and I believe the division between ‘human flesh’ meaning soft human tissue and ‘meat’ was reinforced by those renowned passages.

The OP claims that English uses the term flesh in compound words referring only to certain animals, e.g. horse flesh, but not with other domestic or equally as intelligent animals such as dogs or dolphins. If we look at the Ngram of the British English corpus, which is arguably older than its American English counterpart; we see that the compounds horseflesh and its hyphenated variant, horse-flesh, were the far more common than horsemeat (blue line) or horse-meat.

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  • “It seems, however, that as recently as 1817, there was a quantity of horse-flesh sold for human food in Paris” (Essays on Physiology and Hygiene, 1838)

  • “Many authors are quoted with regard to the wholesomeness of horse-flesh, whose opinions differ. One says, "that of those who eat the flesh of diseased horses, nine out often die; it should be roasted and eaten with ginger and pork."”
    (The Chinese Repository, 1839)

  • “... and, divesting the mind of the inferiority of horse-flesh over cow or bullock-flesh, the food of hounds, both in its nature and cooking of it, is such as man might not only reject, if necessity compelled him to have recourse to it, […] It is a common expression, that “any thing will do for the dogs,” but hounds, to be in condition, must have every thing good of its kind, and also well cooked. [...] and well-boiled horse-flesh, quite free from taint. [...] When taken out of the boiler, it forms a substance resembling coarse rice pudding; and when the fresh flesh, which is shredded, and the broth in which it is boiled, are added to it in the trough, and very well mixed, it forms the best and highest food that can be given to hounds.”
    (The Horse and The Hound, 1842)

  • “Since the siege of Copenhagen in 1807, horse flesh has regularly been sold by the butchers in that capital for general consumption.”
    (Monthly Retrospect of the Medical Sciences, 1848)

Overwhelmingly, the meaning of horseflesh (the equivalent of today's horse-meat, and horse-beef) is that of food for human or animal consumption.

The shift from horseflesh meaning meat=food, to the live animal's flesh began after the 1970s, and it appears its popularity as a source of food has been decreasing ever since.

  • “She really was a slick little piece of horse flesh except for her occasional kicking spell.” […] “He had one mare, a splendid piece of horse flesh, who had raised him twenty-seven head, besides giving him years of hard work.”
    (Mister, You Got Yourself a Horse: Tales of Old-Time Horse Trading, 1981)

  • “At that time I was not a very good judge of horseflesh. The horse appeared sound and gentle, and, as the owner assured me, had no bad habits. The man wanted a large price for the horse, but finally agreed to accept a much smaller sum, ...”
    (The Conjure Woman, and Other Conjure Tales)

  • Good Judge of Horseflesh:
    A man with good taste in women. A buyer, trader, breeder, or racer of horses who is a good judge of horseflesh is able to size up the potential value of a horse just by looking at it or watching it perform. A bachelor is a good judge of horseflesh if he consistently escorts beautiful women or manages to convince the most beautiful one to be his bride. Granted, the woman is being equated with horseflesh; but at the wedding, it is the man who becomes the groom.”
    (Speaking of Animals: A Dictionary of Animal Metaphors, 1995)

Finally, one long excerpt from a book entitled Unmentionable Cuisine


If asked to explain their personal aversions to eating horsemeat, a few Americans might say something about the taste of the meat not comparing favorably with beef. Many others would mention the “nobility” of the horse and therefore its unsuitability for food. Perhaps a few people would relate their horsemeat prejudice to the lingering effects of prohibitions by the Catholic Church that were intended to break the horsemeat-eating habits originally associated with horse worship by the ancestors of many of us.
In pre-Christian times, horsemeat eating in northern Europe figured prominently in Teutonic religious ceremonies, particularly those associated with the worship of the god Odin. So much so, in fact, that in A.D. 732 Pope Gregory III began a concerted effort to stop this pagan practice, […] The Angles of England were among those peoples who regarded the horse too holy an animal to eat routinely, reserving it for communion meals, and some believe that this prohibition has carried over into the strong prejudices in England today against eating horsemeat. [...]
Horsemeat is called chevaline in France and often, like pork, is sold in separate butcher shops. From time to time there has have been strong movements to increase the use of horsemeat in French cuisine, for it can be prepared essentially as one would beef. […] during the beef shortage in 1973 and because of high beef prices since, quite a bit of newspaper publicity has been given to butcher shops doing a land-office business in horsemeat […] In 1972 the U.S. federal veterinary services passed the meat of 68,000 horses as suitable for human consumption.

Unmentionable Cuisine By Calvin W. Schwabe (1979, and fourth printing 1996)

Note, that not once does the author use the compound horseflesh in the entire chapter, horsemeat refers to the carcass of the animal in question.

  • 2
    But three hundred years ago, there wasn't a word in English which meant what meat means now: the only word for "animal's flesh for eating" was "flesh", So how can you claim that the distinction between meat and flesh goes back two thousand years?
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 18, 2015 at 22:39
  • 1
    @colin fine, I did not know that. I should have checked the etymology of meat. I'll edit.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Oct 18, 2015 at 22:42
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    And while you're about it, would you explain "veruncondia"? It is unknown to me, and I haven't found it in a dictionary (including the OED). Wiktionary has a Latin word "verecondia", which might be what was intended, but neither Wiktionary not the OED shows it as an English word.
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 18, 2015 at 22:44
  • 1
    OK, it's an obscure Latin word. Why are you using it, and what do you mean by it?
    – Colin Fine
    Oct 18, 2015 at 23:05
  • 3
    Nothing wrong with 'verecund' (adj.)--it's not marked as rare in the OED, although marked as rare, obsolete or archaic in some other dictionaries. 'verecundity' (n.) is marked as rare...but why complain about rarity. I like my flesh that way.
    – JEL
    Oct 19, 2015 at 21:43

Language is ever evolving though so making arguments based solely on older definitions and usage doesn't account for all of the morphology of the word, since there are examples in modern usage. I would agree with OP that those are common phrases that I've heard as a native English speaker. Another commenter included the phrase "bags of meat" in reference to humans, which I have heard used in a sarcastic or existential way specifically by young people. I am further confused by another usage for meat "you need to put some meat on your bones."

The "meat" of the question is, is the term meat becoming used slightly more often to mean non edible flesh? I would argue yes, though only in certain contexts where there cannot be confusion about edibility/ intention about consumption.

Yes, the above example is used in an old children's story by a cannibal planning to eat children, however as a modern English speaker I most often hear that phrase from my brother's coach who wants him to grow muscle, etc. I would argue that in modern usage, the phrase does not allude to consumption, even if that does have to do with the origins. Curious to hear other people's thoughts on this! Please let me know if I should call someone about my brother's coach...

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