Cow pies and the Norman Conquest

As an English speaker living in Germany, I have often wondered why the German words for different kinds of meat are essentially the same as the names of the animals themselves, whereas the English language (usually) has one name for an animal and another for its meat. For example, in England I would have ordered a fillet of pork or a beef pie, but in Germany I now ask for a pig fillet or a cow pie. So where did this difference come from? And why does English have separate terms for meat and animal?

Answering this question calls for more than just our culinary expertise – we have to take a journey almost 1000 years into the past, to the aftermath of the Norman Conquest of England. One of the many changes that this event brought about was the introduction of the Anglo-Norman language, a variety of old Northern French that was spoken in England in the years following the Conquest. The Old English names for livestock have roots that predate the introduction of French vocabulary into the English language, and these have largely remained in place in a similar form to pre-Norman times. The words pig, sheep and cow, for example, can be traced back to the Old English words picg, sceap and cu, which in turn have Germanic origins.

A cow pie.

A cow pie.

The Normans, of course, had their own names for these animals; names which differed greatly from their Old English counterparts: porc, moton and buef. Sound familiar? That these words evolved to become pork, mutton and beef is clear enough, which means the mystery of the existence of these dual terms is solved. One thing, however, still remains unclear: why have both the Germanic and Norman terms been retained in Modern English, and why do we use the Germanic terms for livestock and the Norman terms for meat?

The reason for this idiosyncrasy of the English language is the difference in usage between the English-speaking peasants and their Anglo-Norman-speaking lords during this period. The peasants would, of course, largely have used the English words to refer to the animals they tended; a French lord, however, would likely only have had cause to refer to an animal if it had been roasted and was sitting before him on the dining table. Thus, the Germanic terms evolved to become the names of the animals, and the Norman terms the names of the meat. Countless other French terms have since found their way into the English cooking vocabulary – so make sure you don’t confuse your flambé with your fricassee, and always remember the bouquet garni when you’re preparing a bouillon. And on that note: bon appétit!

Robert Fawcett