Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Meaty Truth

A random conversation with my wife when we were having Bak Kut Teh for dinner sparked a puzzling question... Why is the meat of cows called beef, the meat of pigs called pork, the meat of sheep called mutton, the meat of deer called venison, but the meat of chickens called... chicken? I mean, shouldn't there be another term to describe the meat of chicken? So I posed this question to my wife, thinking aloud, and we realised that for edible birds, the names of their meat are all the same as what they're called... duck meat, patridge, pigeon, ostrich etc. 

One spectulation my wife had was that because we could serve chicken as a whole, and probably most other birds too, and that was why the whole term is used to also describe their meat. Then we realised there isn't another term for fish meat as well, since the entire fish could be served on a single platter. This reasoning made perfect sense, but still, I had to find the "cause" of it. 

Strangly enough, this question has been asked before. A google search will quickly disclose the "truth" behind this seemingly trivial wonder. 

From, as quoted: 

"Beef is from the French "boeuf" which means cow, and por from the French "porc", pig. Likewise mutton is from the French "mouton" sheep. Back in Norman times, these were the main farm animals - turkey, chicken, etc. cam later. The poor farmhands who tended the live animals called them by their Anglos-Saxon names of cow, pig, sheep. The rich Norman lords called the meat they ate by their French names boeuf, porc and mouton. As the two languages merged to form the English we now speak, the meats kept different names from the animals. Later arrivals did not have this split."

Well, case closed. Already?! If anything my 29 years of living has thought me, majoring in science and intrigued by magic, is that we should be skeptical of things (though being too skeptical isn't good). I wanted to confirm this, so I proceeded to find other sources to make sure that my "results were replicable". True enough, it wasn't. It's gonna be a long long post, so if you're not one who's patient enough to read through the post, just scroll to the end for the "answer". 

From, the explanation above is not proven. The one who posed the question initially also had a pretty strong argument, that it acts as a means to distance people away from the source of the food, mentally, so that they don't feel bad about the meat they're eating. Interesting point, but based on the discussion thread, no hardcore "truth" behind the question. 

From, as quoted: 

"Cow is the name for a FEMALE member of the Bovine species, BUT it is also the name of the female of many other speices such as a whale.   Therefore, we do not refer to meat from cattle by the name of the female member of the species.  We could call it cattle meat, but it is referred to by the word beef, which means the flesh of cattle prepared for eating.   From old French boef."

"Actually, chicken does have another name - poultry. Poultry can also mean other birds, but unless another is specified it almost always means chicken. So chicken is to poultry as cow is to beef."

The answers from the 3rd source, askville gives a good lead. There's a high possiblitity that the "problem" boils down to the english language. Oh, how did I forget about the term "poultry"? If poultry does mean chicken meat, or if beef could also mean the physical cow, then my question would be much ado about nothing wouldn't it? And also, if cow doesn't just refer to the bovine species, then in a way it would make sense to give the meat of the bovine cows another name. 

With that knowledge, I guess the best way to find out the answer, isn't about finding out the origins of the terms, but on what their definitions mean. The definitions from 



  • 1a fully grown female animal of a domesticated breed of ox, kept to produce milk or beef:
    a dairy cow
  •  (loosely) a domestic bovine animal, regardless of sex or age.
  •  (in farming) a female domestic bovine animal which has borne more than one calf. Compare with heifer.
  •  the female of certain other large animals, for example elephant, rhinoceros, whale, or seal.
  • 2 informal an unpleasant or disliked woman.
  •  Australian/NZ an unpleasant person or thing.



  • 1 [mass noun] the flesh of a cow, bull, or ox, used as food:
    there was the smell of roast beef
    [as modifier]:
    beef cattle
  •  [count noun] (plural beeves /biːvz/ or US also beefs) Farming a cow, bull, or ox fattened for its meat:
    a beef sent to the abattoir
  • 2 [mass noun] informal flesh with well-developed muscle:
    he needs a little more beef on his bones
  •  strength or power:
    he was brought in to give the team more beef
  •  the substance of a matter:
    it’s more a sketch than a policy—where’s the beef?
  • 3 (plural beefs) informal a complaint or grievance:
    he has a beef with education: it doesn’t teach the basics of investing
  • 4US informal a criminal charge:
    getting caught with pot in the sixties was a narco beef



  • 1a domestic fowl kept for its eggs or meat, especially a young one:
    rationing was still in force and most people kept chickens
  •  [mass noun] meat from a chicken:
    roast chicken
  • 2 [mass noun] informal a game in which the first person to lose their nerve and withdraw from a dangerous situation is the loser:
    he was killed by a car after he lay in the road playing chicken
  •  [count noun] a coward.



[mass noun]
  • domestic fowl, such as chickens, turkeys, ducks, and geese.
  •  the flesh of chickens and other domestic fowl as food:
    I haven’t eaten red meat for 19 years and poultry for 12 yearsraw or cooked meat and poultryanyone handling raw poultry should wash their hands thoroughly

Well, it would seem that poultry does refer to the meat of chicken and could also refer to the collective term of fowls, chickens included. This means Poultry is like Cattle (hoofed animals), as well as Poultry is like Beef. "Cow" does not only mean the female of cattle or the bovine species, it also refers to the female of the alligator, dolphin, dugong, elephant, giraffe hippopotamus, rat, reindeer, sea lion, termites and even whales (not exhaustive).

And the female of the chicken is called "hen", which is also the same term for the female of the crab, lobster, squid and other birds such as ostrich, lark, parrot etc. 

The answer seems clearer now. "Cow" refers to the term for the female of the bovine species, not the animal as a whole. Whereas "Chicken" refers to the animal. It's as if light has finally shone on the darkest.... wait a minute, before I get complacent, lemme extend my search to pigs... Alas, my explanation failed. 

"Pigs" also refer to the animal. And while finding this out, I also came across another puzzling question... why isn't it called "pig chops" rather than "pork chops", whilst we call "lamb chops" and "chickn chops" as such? Lamb is the young for sheep. Which means it should be called "piglet chops" or "chick chops" rather. 
Or "sheep chops", "pig chops" and "chicken chops". 

Adding a chop at the back really screws things up. Anticipating a life-long quest to uncover this linguistic mystery, I've decided to come up with my own explanations. 

Before I digress, my initially question has been answered. The meat for chicken is called poultry, so there is indeed a term to describe the meat of chicken. However, the fish part still remains a mystery, as the meat of fish, is still called fish meat. 

To align the terms for a better comparison and understanding: 
[animals, young, female, male, group, meat]
1. Cattle: Calf, Cow, Bull, Herd, Beef/Veal
2. Chicken: Chick, Hen, Rooster/Cock, Flock, Poultry
3. Pig: Piglet, Sow, Boar, Drift, Pork/Ham/Bacon
4. Sheep: Lamb, Ewe/Dam, Ram, Drift, Lamb/Mutton/Hoggett
5. Deer: Calf, Doe/Cow, Stag/Buck, Herd, Venison
6. Fish: Fry/Fingerling, Nil, Nil, School, Nil

I strongly believe this is a linguistic issue. And the combined factors of other languages, ease of speaking (syllabus) and abiding by the "norm". 

So does the term for the meats only refer to a specific sex of the animals? No. Googling "Bull Meat", I get "Beef", same goes for "Cow Meat". However, Googling "Calf Meat" I get "Veal". 

As for chicken, "Chick, Hen, or Rooster Meat" were all returned with "Chicken". Both "Chicken" and "Poultry" can be used to describe chicken meat, but "Chicken" is more common. Also, an interesting find, the difference between rooster and hen meat: 

To summarise the article, they're killed usually during a young age so the difference is subtle, but females generally taste a bit fattier. 

The article also mentions the difference, more distinct than chickens, between male and female pigs. Which explains my next Google results. "Piglet Meat" and "Sow Meat" are "Pork", whilst "Boar Meat" is more common known as "Boar Meat". It seems to have an informal class of its own, which is probably due to its more distinct taste (leaner and gamier as opposed to tender and milder for the females). 

As for Sheep and Deer, despite the genders/ages, they are all called Mutton and Venison respectively, with the exception of Stag Meat, which is called "Stag Meat". The results on the first page all shows World of Warcraft items, so based on inference, it would seem most of the male meats of the animals have a different class of their own literal terminologies, perhaps because of the slight differences in tastes. 

So what have I learnt from my research? Apart from don't ask so many answers, and some questions are meant to be unanswered, is that some things are the way it is, just because they are. No explanations will be able to answer those questions. 

Every explanation above is flawed in one way or another, and it would have been perfect if the first explanation about the merger of the two languages is proven. 
If I were to guess, it would be because of the ease of the pronunciation of "chicken"as opposed to "poultry". Even though there's 2 syllabus each, there's an alliteration of "c" in "chicken", which makes it easier to remember, and say. 

As for Cow meat, it's a common mistake for people to associate cows to refer to the terminology for the animal, because of our early childhood education. It's only 1 syllabus, so instead of Cattle, Cow is easier to say and remember. And why draw the line so clearly to differentiate between the different sexes? Unless we are zoologists or taxonomists? 

As for Pig meat, there's a negative connotation behind calling someone Pig. So using Pig meat doesn't sound too appetising is it? Pork sounds more neutral, well, it could be called anything else, but it just so happened to be called Pork, sounds straight forward, easy to rem, and wa la, pig's meat is called pork. 

Sheep meat is a hard one to crack. Because "Mutton" is 2 syllabus and it's harder to pronounce than Sheep. Perhaps sheeps look too innocent and there is some truth behind people wanting to not associate the meat they are eating with the animal itself. 

Deer is understandable because most of the time, we don't call "Deer's Meat" "Venison" anyways, I mean, I'm sure most people wouldn't even be familiar with the term. If we wanna eat deer meat, one would just simply order deer meat and it doesn't sound awkward at all, despite having an official term to call it. Because deer meat is less common than cow, chicken and pig and sheep meats. 

As for fish, the term probably refers to too diverse a group that people would rather call  them by their names. Eg. I want Garoupa, Snapper, Ikan Bilis, Halibut, Salmon etc. The only exception is Fish and Chips, even though most of the time we know it's Dory fish being used nowadays in Singapore. Because the fish used in making the dish Fish and Chips may vary, based on season, the general term is used instead. 

Coming back to the "Chops". There's just 2 to compare, cos we don't have "Beef Chops" do we? It all comes back to the ease of prounciation. Poultry just seems harder to articulate, so Chicken is used instead. And there you have it. Case closed. Whether it's the real reasons, the "truth", I shall close this chapter once and for all because I'm convinced there isn't a definite answer out there. There could be, but it would take a historian to find it, and I ain't one. My answer to this question, is a cumulation of answers. And with that, I rest my case.

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