Animal Names vs Meat Names

Animal Names vs Meat Names

In English we have different names for animals vs those same animals as food because of the Norman conquest of England in 1066 CE.

From the 5th century until the 11th century England was ruled by the Anglo-Saxons. The Anglo-Saxons were descendant of Germanic tribes which is why English is related to German. In looking along the language family tree we can see that English is actually related to a host of Germanic languages. The early English language of the Anglo-Saxons took a turn however in 1066 CE when the Normans invaded and conquered the country.

The Normans were a French speaking people from Normandy, the northwestern area of France named for them. After crossing the channel and conquering England, they became the ruling class. This led to a tri-lingual system where:

  • Latin was the language of the Church
  • Anglo-Saxon English was the language of the common people, and
  • Norman French was the language of the nobility, courts, and government administration
A portion of the Bayeux Tapestry documenting the Anglo-Saxon defeat to the Normans at the Battle of Hastings in 1066 CE.

What’s For Dinner?

Anglo-Saxons became the working-class hunters and farmers of England and, as they were the ones tending to the animals, they called the animals by their English names. The Norman rulers however more frequently encountered these animals when they were served on a plate, and in this culinary context called them by their French names.

Over the centuries this practice of using two different names was adopted into Middle English which then evolved into our Modern English. This linguistic duality, where a living animal is called one name in English while also being called by a different French name as food, has continued through to the present.

English animal vs French meat dual names include:

  • cow vs beef
  • calf vs veal
  • pig vs pork
  • sheep vs mutton
  • deer vs venison (although originally any hunted animal was called “venison”)
  • snail vs escargot

Interestingly we use the word “chicken” for both the animal and the meat. This is likely because chicken was one of the few meats that everyone could afford and since the common people were raising them and eating them, their practice of using the English language name in both context carried on.

Also the word for “fish” in French is “poisson” which is too close to the word “poison”. It’s thought that this linguistic similarity, and the danger if you get them confused, is why we kept the English language word for both the animal and the meat. We also tend to use the specific name for what kind of fish we are referring to (avoiding “fish” and “poisson” altogether).