The Grammarphobia Blog

On “swine” and “pork”

Q: A French friend told me that the Norman invasion in 1066 gave the English-speaking world two sets of words for dealing with food, those of Anglo-Saxon origin and those from French. Is this true?

A: There’s some truth to what your friend said, though English has a smorgasbord of food words from many other languages—for instance, “pizza” (Italian), “bagel” (Yiddish), “curry” (Tamil), “ketchup” (Malay), and, of course, “smorgasbord” (Swedish).

Many of our words for barnyard animals are of Anglo-Saxon origin: “calf,” “cow,” “ox,” “pig,” “hog,” “swine,” and “sheep.” But many of the words for the meat that comes from those animals are of French Norman origin: “veal,” “beef,” “pork,” and “mutton.”

No big surprise here, of course, since Anglo-Saxon peasants raised farm animals for the Norman aristocracy that ruled them. In Ivanhoe, set in the 12th century, Sir Walter Scott’s Saxons see livestock in light of farming and husbandry while his Normans see it as something to go on a platter.

We have the Norman conquerors and their descendants to thank for many other food-related words in English: “butcher,” “sauce,” “boil,” “fillet,” “soup,” “pastry,” “fry,” “roast,” “toast,” “dinner,” “biscuit,” “vegetable,” etc. It makes me hungry just thinking about them.

Bon appétit!