The 1066 Battle of Hastings saw the Normans, a band of Vikings turned Francophone, take over England, which was by that time a mixture of Anglo-Saxons and other Viking invaders.

The conquerors became the overlords of the conquered, and people who wished to have any social status would use Norman French as opposed to Old English. Thus, Old English speakers, who tended the animals while they were alive, rarely got to see them on the table after they had been slaughtered and cooked.

Although this was probably not the origin of the use of language as a class indicator, it was certainly a step along the way. Although this situation lasted less than 200 years before the two languages merged themselves into Middle English, it was enough to create several pairs of words for particular animals, one Germanic word to indicate the living animal, and another French word to indicate its meat:

Animal (German) or [OE] |  Meat    (French)
Cow    (Kuh)            |  Beef    (Boeuf)
Calf   (Kalb)           |  Veal    (Veau)
Swine  (Schweine)       |  Pork    (Porc)
Sheep  (Schaf)          |  Mutton  (Mouton)
Hen    (Huhn)           |  Poultry (Poulet)
Deer             [deor] |  Venison (Venaison)  <-- See below

Update, 3/15/2008: Deer versus venison

Tem42 wanted to make sure I included 'deer' and 'venison' in this table. There are two different words for the same reason, but I had trouble working it into the table because it uses Modern French and German equivalents to Modern English words, and not Old English and Norman French. But it's worth including, since as Tem42 informs me

"The Old French venesoun meant 'meat of large game', while the Old English deor comes from the German deuzan, meaning 'wild animal'. Neither originally meant deer specifically."

Gorgonzola’s earlier contribution to this node shows how Old English words for domestic food animals at the time of the Norman Conquest of England later became the names of animals in Middle English language. The Norman words for the same animals, introduced to the Anglo-Saxon upper classes at the time of the Conquest, were gradually transposed to the words indicating meat from these beasts. Thus, O.E.“sceap” became “sheep” while “mouton” became “mutton”. This gave two words for the same animal, one for the living, one for the slaughtered.

Meanwhile, on the Continent, the French language was also evolving but with some interesting differences.

The old French words for the animal, with some refinements, are still used today to indicate the animal and its flesh. Bœuf generally means cattle as a collective term but it also means the castrated male: bullock, steer, or draft ox. It can also mean a yak or a buffalo. A cow is a vache, a heifer is a génisse and a calf (male or female), is a veau.

Gastronomically, Bœuf means beef from mature animals, veau is veal, pork is porc, mutton from mature animals is mouton, and agneau is lamb. Cheval, chèvre, and grenouille refer to horse, goat, and frog. Except for chickens and ducks, voilaille (domestic poultry), is known by its zoological name: oie is goose, dindon is turkey, pigeon is pigeon.

Among chickens, the hen for the pot is a poule, the rooster is the coq, a female chicken between three and ten months is a poulet and a young rooster is a coquelet. The adult duck on a menu is referred to as canard, a duckling is a caneton. The teenager of the duck family is a canardeau.

The animal names in French used to refer to the flesh eaten also refer to other parts of the animal used by mankind. Veau is calfskin, but calfskin used for footwear is called box-calf ( a compliment to English bootmakers), while vélin refers to the dressed skin of a stillborn calf, considered the most superior type of parchment. Cowhide is vache, vachette is the tanned hide of a heifer (génisse), while horsehide is cuir de cheval (leather of horse). The word for sheep (moutons) is used in the singular (mouton) for either an adult sheep, a sheepskin (parchment) or lambskin (tanned with the hair left on, often used for coat linings). Deerskin is known as daim.

Finally, we come to venaison which, as in the 11th century, still means the flesh of large game such as cerf (elk), chevreuil (roe deer) , daim (fallow deer), and sanglier (wild boar). This, collectively, is known as gibier or, more precisely, grand gibier, as there are several categories of gibier.

Gibier is defined as “all the animals good to eat which are taken by hunting”. In addition to the “large game” of the previous paragraph, there is petit gibier which includes rabbits, hare, and upland birds (quail, pheasants, guinea fowl, partridge) and gibier d’eau which covers waterfowl.

Source: "Le Petit Robert", Dictionnaire de la langue française

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