Q: How did the word “beef” come to mean a complaint?
A: The use of “beef” in the sense of a complaint or a grievance first appeared in American English as a verb in the late 19th century and as a noun at the beginning of the 20th century.
However, the source of the usage dates back to the early 18th century when to cry “beef” in British criminal slang meant to raise an alarm, with “beef” used as rhyming slang for “thief.”
The British lexicographer Jonathon Green, author of the three-volume Green’s Dictionary of Slang, traces the usage back to an anonymous 18th-century British dictionary of underworld slang:
“BEEF, to alarm, as To cry Beef upon us; they have discover’d us, and are in Pursuit of us” (A New Canting Dictionary, 1725). The term “cant” refers to the slang used by London’s criminals to conceal illicit activities.
In the early 19th century, “beef” came to be a short, rhyming way of saying “stop thief,” as in this example cited in Green’s:
“BEEF: stop thief! to beef a person, is to raise a hue and cry after him, in order to get him stopped” (A New and Comprehensive Vocabulary of the Flash Language, 1812, by James Hardy Vaux).
Two decades later, the expressions “stop thief” and “hot beef” were apparently confused by a police officer in this Green’s citation about the arrest of a street urchin in London:
“The policeman would not swear that the boy did not cry ‘Hot beef’ and that he might not have mistaken it for a cry of ‘Stop thief’ ” (The Morning Post, Oct. 4, 1832).
The policeman arrested the boy for shouting “stop thief” as a joke. However, the boy was released by a magistrate after testifying that he had been selling roast beef on the street and shouted “hot beef” to attract customers.
Reports of the incident in several newspapers led to the use of “hot beef” as rhyming slang for “stop thief”—on the street as well as at the theater. The Oxford English Dictionary’s earliest example is theatrical:
“There is a regular run over the stage crying ‘Hot beef! hot beef!’ (instead of ‘Stop thief!’).” From London Labour and the London Poor (1861), by Henry Mayhew.
The slang use of “beef” and “hot beef” for “stop thief” apparently paved the way for the usage you ask about—“beef” in the sense of a complaint or a grievance.
The earliest OED citation for “beef” as a verb meaning to complain is from The (New York) World, May 13, 1888: “He’ll beef an’ kick like a steer an’ let on he won’t never wear ’em.”
The first OED example for the noun is from Fables in Slang (1900) by the American humorist George Ade: “He made a Horrible Beef because he couldn’t get Loaf Sugar for his Coffee.”
The OED says Middle English borrowed the word “beef” from the Old French boef. The dictionary’s earliest example, which we’ve expanded, is from Kyng Alisaunder, a medieval romance about the life of Alexander the Great:
“To mete was greithed beef and motoun, / Bredes, briddes, and venysoun” (“To feed [them] were prepared beef and mutton, roast meats, birds, and venison”).
By the way, we published a post in 2007 on how English originally got many of its meat terms. Here’s an excerpt:
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.