The names for the meat — beef, pork, venison, mutton, and poultry — are derived from Old French.
Dear Matthew Alice: Why do we call cow meat “beef" and pig meat “pork" but call chicken and fish by their names? — Steve Gersh, Black’s Beach
I don’t believe Steve lives there. I suspect that’s just where he was when the question occurred to him. No explanation needed, I think. Actually, none wanted.
This one’s a skate, mostly because I can do no better than to quote from language researcher Brett Palmer of the Merriam Webster company, who tackled this poser with relish. Or perhaps a little steak sauce.
“The names of the animals you mention — cow, pig, deer, as well as sheep and chicken — all have their roots in Old English, the variety of English spoken after about the Sixth Century iq what is today England. The names for the meat of these animals — beef, pork, venison, mutton, and poultry — are all derived from the Old French, the language of the Norman conquerors of England.
“The Norman invasion of 1066 and the subsequent rule of England by the Norman aristocracy left an indelible mark on the language we speak, and this question touches on one facet of that mark. The animals on a Lord’s estate were tended by serfs — in this case, Anglo-Saxons. Their name for the animals persisted in use. The Anglo-Saxon servants and serfs, however, rarely were able to enjoy the end product of their care, the meat being reserved for the noble’s table. Consequently, when the animal was butchered for meat, it was called by a name chosen by the person who owned that meat — after 1066, invariably the name was of French origin. Gradually the Normans were assimilated into the body of the English, and their vocabulary was assimilated also.
“ ‘Fish’ too comes from Anglo-Saxon, but unlike the larger farmed (or hunted) animals, fish of some kind was available to nearly all throughout history and formed an important part of medieval man’s diet. Although I am guessing, perhaps that is why the ‘fish’ you catch is also the ‘fish’ you eat.”