A Little Lesson on Anglo-Saxon and the Fossilization of History in Language

Consider the following examples of the language learned, for the most part, by English speakers when they were children:

cow, bull, heifer, ox (from Old English cu, bulla, heahfore, oxa)

beef (from Old French boef)


sheep, ewe, ram (from Old English sceap, scep, eowu, ramm)

mutton (from Old French moton)


pig, swine, boar, sow (from Old English picg, swin, bar, sawan)

pork (from Old French porc)


calf (from Old English cealf)

veal (from Old French veel)


deer, doe, buck, stag, hart (from Old English deor, da, bucca, stagga, heorot)

venison (from Old French venesoun)


chicken, hen, cock (from Old English cicen, henn, cocc)

poultry (from Old French pouletrie)


goat (from Old English gat)

chevon, mutton (from French chèvre and Old French moton)


snail (from Old English snaegl)

escargot (from Old French escargot)

Have you thought about the fact that most of our words for live animals have English origins, while most of our words for “meat,” for animals as eaten, come from French?

These differences have their origins in exploitation. In 1066, the French-speaking Normans conquered the Anglo-Saxon-speaking English. Thereafter, the subservient English looked after animals belonging to their masters, but for the most part, they couldn’t afford to eat those animals. The lords (from hlaf-warden, or loaf guardian) and ladies (from hlaf-dige, or loaf kneader)—the wealthy Norman rulers—could afford to eat them, and so we have inherited English words to refer to nonhuman animals as living creatures and French words to refer to nonhuman animals as objects to be consumed.

The exploitation of animals for food and the exploitation of serfs for their labor are fossilized, together, in the typically unexamined language that we speak, like doomed lovers who tried to flee a volcano.

From Trillions of Universes, copyright 2010, Robert D. Shepherd. All rights reserved.

Brooke Belk, I think that you will appreciate this piece.

About Bob Shepherd

interests: curriculum design, educational technology, learning, linguistics, hermeneutics, rhetoric, philosophy (Continental philosophy, Existentialism, metaphysics, philosophy of language, philosophy of mind, epistemology, ethics), classical and jazz guitar, poetry, the short story, archaeology and cultural anthropology, history of religion, prehistory, veganism, sustainability, Anglo-Saxon literature and language, systems for emergent quality control, heuristics for innovation
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