Etymology: The Origin of the Word "Meat"


Have you ever repeated a word so many times that it seems to lose its meaning? One-syllable words always seem especially funny somehow, and I spent about five minutes this morning daydreaming about meat, of all things. I looked into the history of the word meat, and this led me to wonder about other edible animals, so I researched the words meat, pork, beef and mutton. I found the alternate and historical meanings for these particular words fairly interesting. I thought it was humorous that something as common as the words for simple meats for eating could have ever been known as anything else.

The word meat is quite surprising in its historical and alternate meanings: for example, meat has also been used as a verb. According to the OED, as early as the 11th century, meat has been used in this way to describe the action in which one feeds or provides an animal or person with food or provisions. For example, if you lived on a farm, you might say that you need to meat the cows and goats after breakfast. This comment would have nothing to do with the meat that these livestock would provide, either. The word meat, in this instance refers to solid (versus liquid) sustenance.

The word meat is said to have originated from the Old Frisian word mete; Old Frisian is a Germanic-Dutch language that is still spoken in some places of the world today. In these earliest manifestations of meat, we find various spellings and meanings of the word which all seem to center around a sustenance-substance theme. This early old English was spoken from 450 to 1150, and closely resembled German. Speakers of modern English would not easily recognize this language, as it resembles modern English less than it does modern German. The earliest spellings of the word meat vary widely, as well, in forms such as the Old English spellings of the word: mæte, met, mett, and mete. An example of the Old English usage of the word meat is found in Lindisfarne’s Gospels of Luke, chapter 12, verse 23: “Anima plus est quam esca : se sauel mara is ðon met.” This early version of meat then transformed, metaphorically, from a reference of sustenance or a meal into a more generalized interpretation.  An example of this modification is in the Bible’s Book of John, chapter 4, verse 34: “My mete is that I do the will of him that sente me.” This later generalization gave meat the expanded sense of meaning something that is primary sustenance or substance. This expanded definition was so well-received that it was later used in noun and verb form in countless proverbs and phrases, such as “One man’s poison, another man’s meat,” and the ever-popular “meat and potatoes.”

It wasn’t until the 14th century that meat took on a familiar meaning, namely, the edible flesh of animals. This particular specialization of meat is found in Middle English, which was spoken around 1150 to 1450.  The Middle English spellings of meat vary widely: maite, mate, meite, metee, meth, meyte, meet, meete,  and meett, to name a few. An example of the Middle English usage of the word meat is found in Richard Morris’s version of Lambeth’s Old English homilies: “Ne sculen ȝe nawiht ȝimstones leggen Swinen to mete.” Middle English was followed by what we now consider to be Modern English, which was spoken from 1450 on.

A Modern English version of the word meat is found Norton’s Ordinal of Alchemy in Ashmole Theatrum Chemicum Britannicum, “Without Liquor no Meate is good.” The Modern English version of our language is much more recognizable as the English used today with only slight variances in spelling and usage in historical literature. Later, the word meat also underwent dysphemism by pejoration to also include a definition that describes genitals, prostitution or a corpse. An excerpt from T. Killigrew’s Parsons Wedding, borrows this definition of meat, saying, “Your bed is big enough for two, and my meat will not cost you much.”

It is also interesting to note that the early Old English definition and verb form of meat are still used today in certain regions of England. For example, “A’m jist gaan oot tae mett the hens eenoo” is an excerpt from D. Kynoch’s Lallans, written in 2015.

Interestingly, the word pork, like meat, has been used for centuries as both a noun and a verb. While the word pork is much newer in its usage, its usage history bears a marked resemblance to that of the word meat. Pork, like meat, began as a noun, and its transitive verb form became useful later to describe an act of giving sustenance. Pork made its first appearance near the end of the Middle English period, around 1300. A few spelling variations are based in the Anglo-Norman language, such as porc , pork , porck , porke while other spellings are derived from the  Old French and Middle French spelling porc. An excerpt from C. Horstmann’s Early South English Legendary quotes St. Mary Magdalen as saying, “Huy nomen with heom..porc, motoun, and beof.” In this usage, pork refers to a familiar definition: the edible flesh of a pig.

Later, in 1877, pork, like meat, found popularity as a transitive verb springing from the fatty appearance of the pig. F. T. Elworthy provides an example of this humorous euphemism in the Word Somerset Word Book: “I s’pose you’ll pork away thick lot o’ little pigs.”  This definition has shifted to describe an action in which something becomes fattened by feeding.

In its latest and most recent incarnations, society has retained these definitions for pork and added to them more specialized and colorful meanings. In the 1960s, pork – like meat in 1664came to be known as a sexual term, as in the film American Grafitti, where one character’s declares “They’re porking in the weeds.” This gave rise to humorous euphemisms such as “pork sword,” which is a term for a man’s penis, as well as pejorations such as “pork and beans,” a slang term for the Portugese people that was coined during the First World War.

The word Pork, through a dysphemistic shift that occurred early on in its usage, often carries a derogatory connotation. Pork has also been used as a noun, adjective, and verb to describe a stupid or uncultured person, a fat person, or the act of political pandering.    

Like pork, the word beef was first recorded being used in the 12th century in reference to the edible flesh of an animal, only this time it referred to the meat of a cow or other bovine animal. One such use is found in Kyng Alisaunder around 1300: “To mete was greithed beef and motoun.” The word beef was usually preceded or followed by a specific bovine body part to describe the meat, such as rib or sirloin. This noun then generalized to further include other types of food metaphorically, as in R. Lovell’s Πανζωορυκτολογια (Higher Mineralogy) from 1661, saying, “ counted the beefe of the Sea.” Like meat, beef, also came to be used to refer to the strength or essential substance of something. Beef took on this more generalized definition around 1850, as this excerpt from the Cork Examiner from March 28, 1862 “Chelmsford stood higher in the leg, and showed less beef about him.”

Many spellings of beef are found throughout history. Like pork, beef seems to have its root in Old French. The Old French boef was in turn is derived from the Latin word bov-em, which is distinctly similar to the word bovine of Modern English. Some Middle English spellings of beef include boef, beef, bouf, befe, byffe, beoff, buif, and beff. Plural spellings of beef varied just as widely, including beeves beoffes, buefs, beuys, beues, beves, beafes, beffes, bevis, and beoves.

One interesting shift in the recent specification of the meaning of beef is the use of the word to describe a complaint or grounds for disagreement, which appeared as early as 1900. One such example of this usage is found in the Daily Express from May 22, 1945:  “The beef is, why should every battle we fight have to be a ‘Battle of Britain’?”

Like meat and pork, beef was first used as a noun and later gained popularity as a verb. As early as the 19th century, beef was used in this way to describe the act of applying beef directly to a wound or bruise to aid in its healing, as in T. Simmons’s Oakdale Grange : “It will show up in blue and yellow relief..unless they beef it.” Less surprising is the use of beef, like pork, as a verb to describe the act of fattening something up by feeding or the act of slaughtering an animal. Likewise, beef can also be used as a verb to describe the act of complaining, as in S. Lewis’s Babbitt: “Course I wouldn’t beef about it to the fellows at the Roughnecks’ Table there.”

Like beef and pork, the word mutton first made an appearance in the early 12th century. One such example is found in a cookbook dated around 1450, from T. Austin’s Two 15th-cent Cookery Books: “Stwed Mutton: Take faire Mutton that hath ben roste..and mynce it faire.” Also akin to these other meat words, mutton was derived originally from Old French and incorporated into Middle English. Earliest spellings of mutton are highly varied, and include the Anglo Norman-derived moltoun, as well as motene, mowton, mottoune, and muttwn, to name a few. The earliest uses of mutton vary in referring to male goat or sheep, to referring to castrated goats or sheep, and then most recently and widely used to denote the livestock or meat obtained from these animals. A dysphemistic shift in meaning then occurred in the 14th century to use mutton to deprecatingly describe a foolish man, as in R. L. Stevenson’s novel, Wrong Box: “‘You innocent mutton,’ said Michael.” Like meat and pork, mutton has also been used to describe the female genitals as far back as the 16th century, especially in when referring to a prostitute or woman of low character, as in this excerpt from H. Hodge Cab’s Sir?: “He can’t quite believe she hawks her mutton in hexagonal horn-rimmed spectacles.”

The docile nature of the sheep also seems to have inspired other derogatory specification of the word mutton in its usage in the phrase “dead as mutton,” which dates back to 1792. Another phrase uses “hook one’s mutton” to describe the act of dancing with a partner. This docility of the sheep has also inspired the slang adjective form of mutton, which is used to denote someone who is deaf, as in Guardian newspaper from July 23, 1991: “You will have to speak up, I’m a bit mutton.”

In conclusion, it would seem that some societal innovation such as trade must have inspired the necessary specification of all of the different types of meat into categories such as beef, mutton and pork during the 12th century. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, it seems that various semantic shifts in meaning then occurred to denote specific – and often derogatory – versions of each meat-category word. This series of generalizations and specifications, while somewhat twisted, seems logical in that it follows a path of usage that demonstrates change according to the needs and desires of humankind over time. The more colorful specifications of these words seem to resemble the natures of the animals they are named for.




Source referenced:

OED Online. Oxford University Press, December 2015. Web. 21-28 February 2016.

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