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Dinner with the Normans

Practically the first thing English students learn about the history of their language is how we English-speakers absorbed many words from French after the Norman Invasion of 1066. Since the French were masters of Britain for centuries, we absorbed numerous French words from the viewpoint of the conquered. Thus the French called their dwelling a maison, meaning "house," but it looked to the natives like a "mansion." Similarly, English adopted many food words from the Normans: since the French-speaking overlords sat at table while the (English) natives raised the animals, cooked the food and served the dishes, the French words for various animals came to mean, in English, the food derived from the animal. The French overlord was calling for "cow" (in French). But since the only form in which a French-speaking ruler would ever come in contact with the cow was as food, the English speaking servants understood the French word to mean the prepared meat of the animal. Hence:

English French meaning
beef cow (ox)
veal calf
mutton sheep
pork pig
venison game


Of course, the Norman French also had words for foods, rather than the animals. Sometimes, the French word for the food became a different food in English, like "bacon," which in French means "ham," or "lard," which in French means "bacon." One meaning of lard as a verb is to insert strips of meat fat or bacon in (tough) meat before cooking, for tenderness; hence, the word for the expensive bacon was transferred to the cheaper fat used for the same purpose. "Bacon" is even more interesting, since it originally meant "buttock" or "back" (which is a cognate). The phrase "save your bacon" is ancient, and might be most accurately translated today as "save your butt."