When I first encountered the French words for farm animals such as pig (fr porc, cf pork), ox (boeuf, cf beef), calf (fr veau, cf veal), it seemed as though the French couldn't look at an animal without salivating. However, the fact that English vocabulary distinguishes field-names from food-names for certain animals is, crudely stated, a consequence of the Norman conquest of 1066 and the following centuries in which the French-speaking aristocracy ruled over English-speaking peasants. Recently I discovered a delightful discussion of this point of vocabulary in Walter Scott's Ivanhoe (1820), a novel set in 12th century England. We pick up a conversation between Gurth, the slave-swineherd, and the jester Wamba, in a glade in the ancient forest near Sheffield, around sunset...
Posted by Steven Bird at October 27, 2004 07:55 AM
"Truly," said Wamba, without stirring from the spot, "I have consulted my legs upon this matter, and they are altogether of opinion, that to carry my gay garments through these sloughs, would be an act of unfriendship to my sovereign person and royal wardrobe; wherefore, Gurth, I advise thee to call off Fangs, and leave the herd to their destiny, which, whether they meet with bands of travelling soldiers, or of outlaws, or of wandering pilgrims, can be little else than to be converted into Normans before morning, to thy no small ease and comfort."
"The swine turned Normans to my comfort!" quoth Gurth; "expound that to me, Wamba, for my brain is too dull, and my mind too vexed, to read riddles."
"Why, how call you those grunting brutes running about on their four legs?" demanded Wamba.
"Swine, fool, swine," said the herd, "every fool knows that."
"And swine is good Saxon," said the Jester; "but how call you the sow when she is flayed, and drawn, and quartered, and hung up by the heels, like a traitor?"
"Pork," answered the swine-herd.
"I am very glad every fool knows that too," said Wamba, "and pork, I think, is good Norman-French; and so when the brute lives, and is in the charge of a Saxon slave, she goes by her Saxon name; but becomes a Norman, and is called pork, when she is carried to the Castle-hall to feast among the nobles; what dost thou think of this, friend Gurth, ha?"
"It is but too true doctrine, friend Wamba, however it got into thy fool's pate."
"Nay, I can tell you more," said Wamba, in the same tone; there is old Alderman Ox continues to hold his Saxon epithet, while he is under the charge of serfs and bondsmen such as thou, but becomes Beef, a fiery French gallant, when he arrives before the worshipful jaws that are destined to consume him. Mynheer Calf, too, becomes Monsieur de Veau in the like manner; he is Saxon when he requires tendance, and takes a Norman name when he becomes matter of enjoyment."
"By St Dunstan," answered Gurth, "thou speakest but sad truths; little is left to us but the air we breathe, and that appears to have been reserved with much hesitation, solely for the purpose of enabling us to endure the tasks they lay upon our shoulders. The finest and the fattest is for their board; the loveliest is for their couch; the best and bravest supply their foreign masters with soldiers, and whiten distant lands with their bones, leaving few here who have either will or the power to protect the unfortunate Saxon..."