Thursday, 28 August 2008

De Factoid the Fourth: Have a butchers…

An interesting little fact bubbled to the surface during the frying session of De Factoid the Third: namely that ‘bacon’ – the greasy-spoon mainstay of million – is (as a word at least) French. The British grease-gastro may well swallow his pride as well as his meat and accept bacon’s Gallic origins as little more than a mildly bitter additional flavour; or even savour carving it up with a well made piece of Sheffield steel – but the language of meat in English is recognisably, with but a few fleeting (and we shall see ‘flighting’) exceptions, the product of Monsieur Grenouille: the forever linguistically-pervasive, Frenchman.

To take a step back from bacon (and a step even further back from back-bacon) we get the humble pig: an animal that Churchill regarded as his equal (a sentiment, I feel, which may well have been more-than-readily shared by German nationals of the period). But a pig, when slaughtered (a fantastically Old Norse word – you can practically hear the blade going in to the cow/pig/monk) becomes pork. Something here isn’t kosher…

Cows as well may have some beef with their French carver. To ‘have beef’ with someone is interesting and probably refers to the type of conflict arising between ‘beefy’ combatants. The origin of the phrase is recorded as 18th century American, but ‘beefing up’ has earlier origins. The bovine body has been eaten as a good source of muscle-building protein for as long as cows have been there to provide it. One need only consider the short title for British soldiers garrisoned (from 1485 to present) at the Tower of London who recieved payment, in part, with the meaty-equivalent of the energy bar. The full title of these men – The Yeomen Warders of Her Majesty’s Royal Palace and Fortress the Tower of London – may have been shortened out of kindness as well as dietary considerations: the locals called them ‘Beefeaters’. Etymologists who may be thinking too hard about the subject have noticed the analogy to the Anglo-Saxon compound word for a menial servant, hláf-æta – literally translated as ‘loaf-eater’. The label, however, is unlikely to have applied to the Yeoman Warders: their social position denoted more beef than bread. Interestingly the hláf-æta’s Anglo-Saxon master the hlaford gives us the term ‘land-lord’ (though literally meaning ‘loaf-lord’): the owner of the fields and produce that the hláf-æta tended and relied upon – quite literally the original ‘bread-winner’. To ‘use your loaf’ – a call for the application of common sense – has its origins in Cockney rhyming slang (the phrase ‘loaf of bread’ rhyming with ‘head’). The title of this De Factoid comes from ‘butchers-hook’ rhyming with ‘look’. Cockney as a title links itself to food from an Anglo-French mixture of French cokene – a ‘cock’ (in the sense of a male chicken) and ay from the Old English æg – ‘egg’. Cockneys were literally a diminutive individual liking relatively to a small-misshapen egg when compared to other Londoners. Other food-related social labels have been applied further north with the ‘Scousers’ of Liverpool originally noted for their consumption of the lower-class sailors’ soup: lobscouse (poss. from lob - in the sense of a lump of meat - hence 'ear-lobe'). Cockney rhyming slang itself may have arisen as a cryptic language to allow illicit communication without the ‘pork chops’ (i.e. cops/coppers – hence ‘pig’ in reference to a policemen) being able to understand. But the pork chops we is interested in today come from the four-legged variety, rather than its two-legged namesake.

The pig, we have seen, becomes pork under the knife, and cows become beef. But why is this? The answer, it seems, lies in the languages of differing social classes after the Norman conquest of England in 1066. The French may have ruled the Royal house (royal is a word of French origin from a Latin root that also gives us the word regal, and monarchy is also French), but the country outside the courts did not cease to speak English with the crowning of a new monarch. The words we have for certain meats are the produce of those words being chewed over in different circles of the new English society. To the conquered Saxon farmer tending their animals a cu was still a cu whether calf or carved (the English, indeed, were strained to find why the French monarchy had granted a title to the cut of meat now called sir-loin); and a picga was a pig whichever way you sliced it. But not to their new hlaford. It had happened before with previous invaders, though to the slightly opposite effect of the preservation of the Saxon word ‘orchard’ (‘farmer’s yards’ – consider Gothic aurtja – ‘farmer’) over the Norse apaldgarðr (‘apple-yard’), as whilst the Norseman ate an apple, the Saxon’s still gathered them in their orchards. But in the now French court the mooing bovine animal (bovine itself being a French word from Latin bovum and Bos) was a boef (roughly translation as ‘ox’ in English) and the picga was a porc. The same is true of English deer and French venison; English sheep and French mutton. There is no French equivalent to the Old English clucking cycen however, though the French-rooted word poultry suggests they owned them in sufficient quantities. Perhaps they were more game for rabbit – introduced to Britain by the conquerors after 1066 and only actually becoming wild in the country after escaping from captivity in the last few hundred years. This may be why a chicken is ‘chicken’ whether clucking or ‘clucked’: where there is no class division between consumer and producer, there is no difference in the language. The French words then did not refer specifically to meat, but became associated thus because, ultimately, while English speakers raised cows, their French lords ate boef.

De Factoid the Fifth: coming soon

5 comments:

e6c1r8 said...

apparantly one of the biggest hits at the Minnesota State Fair this year was chocolate covered bacon on a stick... thoughts?

Argentum Vulgaris said...

Chocolate covered bacon, sounds disgusting.

AV

Adam James Nall said...

I suppose that could work. Not sure of the origins. I've had chicken with a chocolate & chilli dip before, the dip being Incan (or Peruvian?) in origin. Minnesota is pretty far north for the dish to have predominantly South American/Spanish influence so maybe its a varient of the Canadian tendancy to put Maple syrup on bacon?

Thanks for the comments.

AJN

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Adam James Nall said...

My pleasure. Thanks for reading.

AJN