Dear Reader Arkein from the land of the Freedom Fries and EuroDisney set me a-thinking about Medieval barns, butcheries, kitchens and dinner-tables. I’ve got a story about that, and I believe it’s far more likely to be true than that slanderous yarn about Louis XIV’s pinkie.
The English language has different words for livestock species and for their meat. Cow — beef. Pig — pork. Sheep — mutton. And there’s a pattern to the linguistic descent of these words: the live-animal words were there already in Old English, whereas the meat words are French loan words appearing from the Middle English period onward.
Middle English (and Modern English, I might add) has been called a product of Anglo-French creolisation. After the Norman Conquest from AD 1066 onward, much of the UK had its social elite replaced by French-speaking Normans or at least culturally re-orientated to a French template. The members of this elite liked feasting on meat, and they talked about meat in French at the dinner table. Boeuf. Porc. Mouton. But the people who worked in the barns, butcheries and kitchens spoke English. Cow. Pig. Sheep. And so the language still preserves an ethnic and social distinction between people who eat meat and people who tend livestock.