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horsemeat

February 12, 2013

What with all this scandal about the horsemeat in our lasagnes, burgers and pies, I keep hearing the word horsemeat on the radio; and it’s got to me to thinking that we don’t actually have a separate word for the stuff, as we do for most other meats. From the cow we get beef, not cowmeat; from the pig we get pork, not pigmeat; from the calf we get veal, not calfmeat; from the sheep we get mutton, not sheepmeat.

The reason for that is a simple and rather pleasing one. After the Norman Conquest, when only the French-speaking nobility could afford to eat meat, they naturally used the French words for the animals they were eating: boeuf, porc, veau, mouton. But it was the Anglo-Saxon farmers and peasant who actually raised and cared for the animals, though they never got to eat them, and naturally they referred to them by their English names: thus a divide developed so we had separate words for the animal and its meat. This isn’t an original point, of course: it is made by a Saxon character in Walter Scott’s Ivanhoe.

Anyway, in that case why don’t we say cheval for the meat of a horse? Presumably because horses were too valuable to eat back in the Middle Ages. 

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2 Comments
  1. Although it would probably have been Anglicised to something like “chevel”, with a hard “ch”.

  2. The OED historical thesaurus has “chevaline” from 1868.

    /@

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