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Dear Matt:

Why do we call cow meat "beef," pig meat "pork," but we call chicken and fish by their names?

-- SG, the beach

Let's see. Who can we blame this one on�the French? We haven't picked on them in a while. As luck would have it, the French is your answer, according to the Merriam Webster word wizards. They tackled the question with relish. And a little steak sauce, maybe.

English would be a lot simpler if the French hadn't ruled Britain a thousand years ago. Before the Normans conquered, pigs was "pigs," cows was "cows," and so were deer, sheep, chicken, and fish. Good old Anglo Saxon words. You cut off a hunk and you ate it. Not good enough for the French nobility, though. They had the Anglo Saxon serfs raising animals for the table, so out on the farm they kept their old names. But inside the big house, once the meat was butchered and served for dinner, it was referred to by its French equivalent, since it was the rich French landowners who would be eating it: boeuf and poulet, for example, which were adopted into English as "beef" and "poultry." Same for venison, pork, and mutton, all French derived. Fish was a common enough food for rich and poor, so the French word never took over, though some specific types of fish still have Frenchified names in the British market.

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