Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Is Chicken Chicken?

Bob Sinclair recently noted in an e-mail message to me:

chicken“In your discussions of animal adjectives in English, you note a quirk in the usage of German based nouns, which in their adjective form carry negative characteristics, while neutral equivalent adjectives are derived from French. I believe that the reason there are so many negative connotations associated with the Germanic words is that the French words gained prominence after 1066, when William the Conqueror brought in French nobles to England as an over-class. The Germanic Anglo-Saxon aristocracy became second (or lower) class, as did their vocabulary.”

Bob, of course, is absolutely right. The French proclivity toward haut cuisine was no doubt the motivating force behind this inclination. The peasants raised pigs but the elite ate porque; sheep were raised but mouton was consumed; cows were raised and milked but boeuf was eaten. The results were the parallels we have today in English:

pig pork
sheep mutton
cow beef

This dualistic pattern must have also been affected at least in part by the trouble some peasants had thinking about eating animals that they had raised. There is a famous example in semantics, recounted in one of her books by Jean Aitchison of a child who loved chicken above all other meats. One Easter she was given one of those dyed chicks so popular in the 50s and 60s in return for her promise to take care of it. The chick grows up and becomes a family pet. One day at the table, as the child sits before her favorite, a chicken dinner, she surveys the pieces on the platter and suddent exclaims: “Oh, no! Chicken is chicken!” And never eats chicken again.

One can easily imagine other dinner tables when the reaction was, “Oh, no! Sheep is sheep!” or “Oh, no! Cow is cow!” But, of course, this is less likely to happen now since the English language has made this discovery more difficult for children. Parents can always deny, “Oh, no, mutton is mutton and sheep are something entirely different.”

Isn’t is wonderful how our language looks out for us?  More on this tomorrow.

3 Responses to “Is Chicken Chicken?”

  1. Language Lover Says:

    I always thought it was quite interesting how in Spanish, a fish was “pez” while alive in the water, but once it became food it was “pescado”, or “the fished”.

  2. rbeard Says:

    Are there any other words in Spanish like that? I would expect the repulsion of eating animals that we otherwise interact with would have a similar impact in other cultures.


  3. Language Lover Says:

    Well, there are different words for “cow” vs. “beef” (vaca/carne) and “pig” vs. “pork”, (cerdo/puerco) as in French, but they’re not etymologically related within the language. In the case of fish, I’m not sure it’s repulsion, just a quirk of the noun/verb relationship.

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