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Meat market lexicography
Saturday, October 13, 2007   2:38 PM

Apropos of Greenpeace's endorsement of kangaroo meat, a writer at my favorite libertarian blog introduces me to australus, the culinary (a.k.a. "meat") word for kangaroo. Awesome.

It surprises me that even while the list of English collective nouns for animals has expanded to include many, many dubious group names, our lexicon of meat words has hardly changed at all, not since the 11th century Norman occupation of England.

(Speaking of the Battle of Hastings, at what point in history did it become easier to become famous for what you did than for how you died? That he supposedly got shot in the eye is prettymuch the only thing I know about King Harold II. See also: the Catholic saints.)

During the Normans' extended visit, a number of high class Old French words (e.g. buef, Old French for cow) shimmied into our vocabulary, creating a lexical distinction between what was raised and what was eaten. Nearly a thousand years later, here's our active animal-meat lexicon:

calf: veal
cow: beef
deer, antelope, moose, caribou: venison
domesticated fowl: poultry
swine: pork
sheep: mutton
snail: escargot
squid: calamari

And occasionally:

kangaroo: astralus
shrimp: scampi

Besides astralus, only three of the terms on this list are recent additions. Escargot was (re)imported from French in the late 19th century, and while I don't have OED access, my guess is that the Italian calamari and scampi came along a bit later. The Online Etymology Dictionary dates scampi back to 1930.

In my experience calamari is almost always used instead of squid, while scampi only pops up in certain recipe names. I'd be remiss if I didn't also mention long pork, a culinary name for human flesh; it was supposedly coined by the cannibals of either Samoa or Fiji.

(The Wikipedia article on culinary names is fairly flabby, but it did point me towards two handy culinary euphemisms: Rocky mountain oysters for buffalo, boar, or bull testicles, and sweetbread for the thymus gland or pancreas of a young animal. And there's tripe, of course. Foie gras is used to describe duck and goose livers, but only when they've been artificially fattened by gavage.)

Perhaps this is because they weren't necessarily raised by anyone, but it strikes me as odd that English has no culinary names for squirrel and rabbit. We've been eating squirrel for a long time — my copy of The Joy of Cooking still has a squirrel recipe — but apparently the Anglo-Norman esquirel merely supplanted the Old English acweorna.

Stranger still, Old French gave us coney (and rabbit for young coney) to describe an animal similar to the one we called hare, and both names were able to exist side-by-side without either becoming a meat word — centuries later, early American colonists had a similar choice (rabbit vs. hare) and basically stopped using hare altogether.

(Somewhat related: Welsh rabbit, the world's tastiest ethnic slur. And rabbit fur is sometimes called by the euphemism lapin.)

More understandable is the lack of a culinary name for dog meat, which the Koreans call gaegogi.

(Not related: another fun meat-related word is jerky, an alteration — misspelling? — of charqui, itself apparently an English word borrowed from American Spanish.)

As any Good Eats fan knows, the word corn underwent a semantic narrowing. It used to refer to a number of kernels or seeds, or even just a bunch of coarse salt granules. So we call it corned beef in reference to the salt packed around the brisket.

The word meat is itself interesting for much the same reason: it once meant simply "food."

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Hello folks,

FYI the dish is not called "Welsh rabbit" but "Welsh rarebit". Also, rabbit and hare are two distinct species (i.e. the rabbit is not a domesticated hare), the former being "Oryctolagus Cuniculus", the latter "Lepus" (Europaeus, Articus, Americanus, etc...).

Also, as synonym of "rabbit" in English, now out of use, is "coney" - compare with "conejo" (Spanish), "coniglio" (Italian), "coleho" (Portuguese).

posted by Anonymous Anonymous at April 16, 2008 7:37 AM  

Thanks for the tip about coney — I hadn't realized that was the probable origin of Coney Island. I'm still surprised that the Old English hare and Old French coney/rabbit didn't follow the standard meat/animal differentiation, but I've updated the entry to be less confusing, i.e. less wrong.

As the entry I linked to points out, and most modern sources will corroborate, Welsh rarebit (attested from 1785) is most likely a corruption of Welsh rabbit (1725). The former has gained currency today as the less offensive term.

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