Chicken – The People’s Food

Cow – Beef

Calf – Veal

Pig – Pork

Deer – Venison

Sheep – Mutton

Chicken – Chicken

Not hard to spot the odd one out, eh? Forgetting about chicken for a moment, have you ever noticed that in English, we have special names for the most-commonly consumed meats, separate from the names of the animals themselves? Most other languages are content to use the same word for the animal and its meat, so why not English? Before looking at the answer, here’s a clue in the form of the English names for animals with their French counterparts:

Bullock – boeuf

Calf – veau

Pig – porc

Deer – cerf

Sheep – mouton

Chicken – poulet

Apart from deer and chicken, you can see a strong similarity between French words for animals and the English words for the respective animal’s meat. The reason for this is the fact that between the 11th and 14th centuries, French was the language of the court in Great Britain, and of the upper classes. Peasants, who raised and slaughtered the animals, used the Germanic-inspired Middle English words for these animals, and our modern words for these animals are derived from them.

Royalty and the aristocracy, however, usually only encountered these animals as meat, and were the only ones able to afford to eat such meat regularly. Therefore the French words for these animals came to be used in English to refer to their meat. Note how this doesn’t apply to animals not normally eaten in Britain: e.g. horseflesh, dogmeat etc. As the elites didn’t eat these animals, normally, their French names didn’t become associated with their meat.

What about venison and chicken then? Well, venison didn’t use to mean only deer meat. It comes from the Old French word venesoun, meaning meat of large game, which could be deer or boar, which were hunted frequently. I imagine that as wild boars became less common in Britain, deer became the main quarry of hunters, and deer meat became synonymous with venison. And the reason we say chicken instead of poulet or pollet or somesuch is because it was widely available to both rich and poor, and the Middle-English speaking commoners vastly outnumbered the French-speaking aristocracy.

And that’s why I like chicken: it’s a symbol of the power of the people. The rich and powerful have always had a disproportionate influence on the world based on their numbers. This goes for language too, but still, numbers ultimately win the day, and if the majority of people use a certain word, then that word gets to go in the dictionary. So while chicken might not have the same delicious flavour as a good steak, this humble bird gave its life again and again to the masses, so that they could survive the harsh medieval life, and because of that we use its humble, everyday Middle English name: chicken.

16 thoughts on “Chicken – The People’s Food

  1. I assumed chicken was a luxury meat until the 20th century, when battery farming made it cheap. Eggs were a cheap form of protein, but killing your egg-layer was an expensive act.
    There are old recipes for “mock chicken”, which was pork or some other meat disguised as chicken; they wouldn’t have done that unless chicken was considerably more expensive than the meat being disguised.

    Liked by 1 person

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