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Beef began its life as an intransitive verb in 1888 and soon took on the noun meaning in 1899 appearing in such expressions as "What's your beef? and "I had a beef with him" (not a steak).

Beef as verb [1888] Slang (originally U.S.): To complain, gripe, grumble, protest. Hence verbal noun ‘beefing.’ Earlier it meant to talk loudly or idly.

  • 1888 “He'll beef an' kick like a steer an' let on he won't never wear 'em.”—New York World, 13 May

Beef as noun [1899] Slang (originally U.S.): A complaint, protest, grievance, gripe, objection, argument, a bone of contention.

  • 1899 “He made a Horrible Beef because he couldn't get Loaf Sugar for his Coffee.”—Fables in Slang (1900) by George Ade, page 80

Regarding its origin I could find two main assumptions:

according to Etymonline it comes from American soldiers slang:

  • The origin and signification are unclear; perhaps it traces to the common late 19c. complaint of U.S. soldiers about the quantity or quality of beef rations.

While this extract from Quora suggests that is origin is from rhyming slang:

  • As regards the etymology of beef, it seems to go back to the cry of hot beef! meaning ‘stop thief!’ (quasi-rhyming slang but more by coincidence than design, since it is far older than rhyming slang's first widespread use in the 1820s-30s); thus the 18th century cry hot beef, to raise a hue and cry. This became ‘to raise an alarm’ or ‘make a fuss’ - the presence of crime was now irrelevant - and thence ‘to shout’. The 'complain' use followed that. Then (both in the late 19th century) came ‘to argue’, ‘to give someone away to the authorities’, and so on.
  • The figurative usage of "beef" appears to be mainly and originally an AmE one, so the reference to American soldiers (and possibly cowboys) sounds reasonable, but the rhyming slang assumption would make it a BrE expression which, for some reason, became popular in the U.S., or are we talking about two different stories which originated the same expression?

In short, is there a plausible and reliable origin of the figurative usage of "beef"?

Related: Do you have a beef with me?

  • I see an answer to a question. So, why give it a bounty? – Lambie Jul 13 '16 at 21:35
  • @Lambie - you see an answer to this question? – user66974 Jul 13 '16 at 21:57
  • For me, the whole thing is a basically part of an answer. – Lambie Jul 13 '16 at 22:35
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This expression, whether in its noun form have a beef, or its verb form, to beef, may come down to us from Cockney rhyming slang.

Beef rhymes with Thief

Beeves (archaic) rhymes with Thieves

Imagine a bustling market day. In the narrow streets, a neighborhood pickpocket weaves through the crowd, pursued by a stranger shouting, "Stop! Thief!" Imagine that none too few persons in the market know the thief, or consider themselves bound to him by common interest. To muffle the alarm, the bemused sympathizers call out "Hot Beef!" and amidst the confusion the rascal slips away.

Too fanciful for you? Well, then, if you will, accept only that Cockney rhyming slang is a real phenomenon, without delving into the reasons for its adoption.

From Historically Speaking:

This phrase has been around for a couple of centuries now and comes from the London criminal underworld.

Well known for its use of cockney rhyming slang, phrases aren’t always what they appear to be.

The traditional shout of “stop thief!” was mocked by being replaced by “hot beef, hot beef” in criminal circles where it was thought that the shouts of “stop thief” were nothing more than making fuss about nothing.

The 1811 edition of the “Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue” defines Beef as: “to cry beef; to give the alarm.”

Here are four related entries from the Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue (1811):

TO SING. To call out; the coves sing out beef; they call out stop thief.


BEEF. To cry beef; to give the alarm. They have cried beef on us. Cant.--To be in a man's beef; to wound him with a sword. To be in a woman's beef; to have carnal knowledge of her. Say you bought your beef of me, a jocular request from a butcher to a fat man. implying that he credits the butcher who serves him.


DUMMEE. A pocket book. A dummee hunter. A pick-pocket, who lurks about to steal pocket books out of gentlemen's pockets. Frisk the dummee of the screens; take all the bank notes out of the pocket book, [D]ing the dummee, and bolt, they sing out beef. Throw away the pocket book, and run off, as they call out "stop thief."


SQUEAK. A narrow escape, a chance: he had a squeak for his life. To squeak; to confess, peach, or turn stag. They squeak beef upon us; they cry out thieves after us. CANT.

2

Here is the best interpretation of BEEF from World Wide Words:

  • We have to go back further to trace the verb to its beginnings. In the early eighteenth century there was a slang phrase to cry hot beef or give hot beef, which meant to raise the alarm, to start pursuit or to set up a hue and cry. This may have been based on a street hawker’s cry and to have been a pun on stop thief! The New Canting Dictionary records in 1725, “to cry beef upon us: they have discover’d us and are in Pursuit of us”. A few years later, the verb beef by itself also meant to raise a hue and cry and this continued in use well into the nineteenth century.

  • [[How's them apples?]] The part of the entry I quote is one paragraph, as it appears above.

  • 4
    As the third paragraph of the World Wide Words answer observes, "The next step is a bit disconnected, because the written evidence for it only begins to appear in the 1860s and it doesn’t chart the way that beef had been developing." This may be a discreet way of conceding that the instance of beef as a verb memorialized in the 1724 New Canting Dictionary may not be responsible for the 1860s and later manifestations of beef as a verb. The questions of continuity and variation in this slang term (as in others) are certainly worth pursuing. – Sven Yargs Jul 13 '16 at 22:41
  • I avoided posting the entire thing. The point is that that explanation re the hot beef expression PREDATES the OP's explanation date by some 125 years and it is BrE! 1725 is BEFORE 1899, isn't it? So what great point are you making? – Lambie Jul 15 '16 at 12:09
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    @Lambie - the point is that you have probably misunderstood the question. and you need to highlight writings that are not yours! – user66974 Jul 15 '16 at 12:58
  • The question was: is there a plausible and reliable source for the expression. The OP was not SURE about the BrE origins. None of the comments under my post make sense to me. I must be really thick. – Lambie Jul 15 '16 at 21:13
-1

I suppose it may have something to do with cows "complaining" (mooing or showing distress) about things we as humans don't think they should. For example, if they would moo/"have beef with" a nearby person who is merely wearing bright clothing.

The mooing and complaining by cows would be "beefing". Beefing is complaining about something we very smart humans don't think you should need to complain about. We say that cows "beef" because when they complain we think of them as just dumb meat whose complaints shouldn't be taken seriously. Used by a human on another, it isn't typically meant to insult the person as dumb meat but only to make light of the complaint, and to subtly say the complaint is somewhat superfluous.

"I don't know what his beef is -- I did clean up."

"I don't know what she is beefing about. The report was submitted on time."

"The Customer is beefing about the Dongle exhibiting benign issue A"

"I don't know what god's beef is but he says we're not allowed to do that anymore"

In the uses above, calling the complaint a beef is meant to make light of the complaint and give a slight nudge to the complainer that they are complaining about something we don't think they should.

  • Your answer would be greatly strengthened if you could cite a reference, or examples of beefing referring to complaining among sources from that period. – choster Nov 5 '18 at 18:48
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likely to derive from disputes between sheep farmers and cattle ranchers from American west - relates to having a beef with someone. Think of the 50's movie Shane partly based on those wars

  • 1
    This would be improved with some evidence. – KillingTime Oct 7 at 15:35

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